The state of Wisconsin occupies a special place in US political history, and the primary votes there this week may prove pivotal for the 2016 presidential race.
The Republican party was founded in 1854 in Ripon, Wisconsin. The state was a leader in the progressive movement with Robert La Follette, the Progressive party leader who contested the presidential election in 1924 and won 17% of the vote nationally.
This year, Wisconsin voters have upended both the Republican and Democratic races for the nomination, handing double-digit victories to the second place candidates in both parties – Ted Cruz for the Republicans and Bernie Sanders for the Democrats.
The consequences for both the frontrunners, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, could be significant.
In Trump’s case, Cruz’s resounding victory makes it virtually impossible for the real estate mogul to clinch the nomination before the party’s July convention. The Republican establishment is determined to manipulate convention rules to assure he does not win an open vote there.
Whether that means that Cruz, who will most assuredly come second behind Trump, emerges with the nomination remains to be seen. There is considerable buzz that House Speaker Paul Ryan, the party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2012, could be drafted as the nominee.
Ryan would certainly be a more formidable candidate than Cruz, a freshman senator on the party’s right-wing fringe who has become the ‘mainstream’ candidate only because of the unexpected strength of the maverick outsider Trump.
For Sanders, whose success was equally unexpected at the outset of the race, the Wisconsin victory adds to the momentum he has from winning six of the last seven primary contests. US mainstream media likes to dwell on Clinton’s commanding lead in delegates, but the bulk of that lead consist of ‘super delegates’ – party officials of various stripes – whose votes technically are unpledged and could switch in the convention.
Sanders is likely to win this weekend’s contest in Wyoming, bringing his tally to seven of the last eight. The question is whether that will give him enough momentum to defeat Clinton in New York – the state that twice elected her to the senate and where she now makes her home.
But Sanders has narrowed her lead in New York to 10 points in the latest polls, compared to 40 just some weeks ago.
The former first lady, former senator, former secretary of state, former presidential candidate in 2008, for all her qualities, is a profoundly polarising figure in the US. Opposition to her is not only intense, it is visceral.
Her net favourability rating is negative – that is, more people view her unfavourably than favourably – and the gap is widening. Sanders outscores her on trustworthiness by a numbing 64% to 25%. And a recent poll by Bloomberg showed Sanders edging her out as Democrats’ first choice by 49% to 48%.
What has made the Sanders insurgency so difficult for Clinton and the Democratic establishment, which is almost 100% behind the former secretary of state, is that the Vermont senator can tap into a seemingly unlimited source of funds from the 2m individual donors who have made more than 6m contributions to his campaign.
In March, Sanders outraised Clinton $44m to $29m, after beating her $43m to $30m in February. Given the expense of a nationwide campaign and the heavy cost of media advertising, this is a significant advantage for Sanders.
This has become a campaign issue in its own right. Clinton is following the traditional route in American politics of raising funds primarily from wealthy donors at tony fundraising events, and uses the full panoply of ‘bundlers’ and ‘super PACS’ – outside organisations that face no campaign financing limits – to promote her candidacy.
This obliges her to jet around the country for these events. She has scheduled a controversial dinner hosted by actor George Clooney later this month where the top fee to sit at her table is $353,000 – an amount Sanders has called ‘obscene.’
Sanders, on the other hand, simply mentions in his victory speeches that it’s time to send in another contribution – the average, famously, is $27. His Wisconsin victory will certainly set off another frenzied round of contributions, and there is every reason to suspect that the added momentum will make his April fundraising total even higher than the record set in March.
If that momentum is sufficient for Sanders to win in New York, or keep the gap in the low single digits – delegates for the nominating convention are awarded on a proportional basis – there truly is a chance for Sanders to win the nomination.
His argument to win super delegate votes is that he is better placed than Clinton to win the general election contest, especially if Trump is denied the nomination and the Republicans choose someone else as standard-bearer. Nothing will unite the Republicans so much and motivate them to vote as having Clinton as the Democratic nominee.
If Wisconsin turns out to be a turning point in both parties, the New York primary on 19 April is likely to determine the outcome.
Darrell Delamaide is a writer and editor based in Washington and a member of the OMFIF Advisory Board. This is the first in a new series by OMFIF on the US presidential election.