Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders reveled Tuesday in hard-fought victories in the Wisconsin primary, but both men confront an implacable challenge ahead: math.
What Cruz and Sanders are attempting is exceedingly difficult this far into in a presidential contest – translating momentum from individual contests into race-altering movement among delegates.
Hillary Clinton lost to Sanders on Tuesday but retains an expansive delegate lead over the Vermont senator. Her margin over him can be diminished enough to deny her the nomination only by a series of swamping defeats in the remaining contests, which would upend the way the race has comported itself so far.
Donald Trump’s loss to the Texas senator had a bigger effect because Trump’s path to the nomination already was narrower than Clinton’s. That, plus the evidence from Wisconsin that Trump continues to struggle to expand his portion of the electorate, increased the chance that the summer Republican convention will open without any candidate having seized the 1,237 delegates needed for the nomination.
The result could be a historic clash over the party’s direction and its standard-bearer, played out inside the convention hall and on the streets of Cleveland.
As politicians do, the winners on Tuesday glossed over the difficulties ahead as the race now careens into New York, where a titanic primary is set for April 19. At present both Trump and Clinton hold big leads in the state, where Trump and Sanders were born and where Clinton lives and served as senator.
But the challenges were evident in what the winners said and didn’t say.
Cruz skipped over the rest of the primary season entirely in a victory speech in which he effectively declared himself the nominee.
“Either before Cleveland or at the convention in Cleveland, together we will win a majority of the delegates, and together we will beat Hillary Clinton in November,” he said at a lively rally in Milwaukee.
The latter option – “at the convention in Cleveland” – remains Cruz’s best shot. Even a complete collapse by Trump in his home state and subsequent primaries would not necessarily give Cruz the pre-convention delegates he needs for the nomination. He would need to win almost all the remaining delegates to achieve that.
Sanders, talking to thousands of supporters in Laramie, Wyo., boasted of the momentum his campaign has developed over the last few months. But he offered no answer to how he would defeat Clinton by the margins necessary to finish ahead of her in the delegate count.
Democrats allocate their delegates proportionally to each candidate’s vote, so the losing candidate still collects some. That means a challenger can shrink a leader’s margin, but it’s all but impossible to leapfrog over a front-runner.
Wisconsin provided a wincing example: 86 Democratic delegates were at stake in the voting, not counting the state’s 10 Democratic elected officials and party leaders who as so-called superdelegates automatically get slots.
Sanders’ big victory stood to net him only about a dozen more delegates than Clinton. The former secretary of state began the night about 250 pledged delegates ahead of him, not counting her 400-plus advantage among the super-delegates.
Sanders’ only answer on Tuesday was that he was relying on changing the minds of superdelegates who already have committed to Clinton. He did not explain why they would abandon her if he ends up winning fewer pledged delegates than she does.
“If you ignore what you hear on corporate media, the facts are pretty clear: We have a path toward victory, a path toward the White House,” he said. That path exists, but it requires some extraordinarily uphill climbs.
While the dynamics facing Cruz and Sanders are similar, the specifics differ.
Cruz benefited Tuesday from an accumulation of factors. Some were unique to Wisconsin, such as a GOP electorate fiercely loyal to the state’s governor, Scott Walker, who endorsed the Texan. Others stemmed from a difficult stretch for Trump: He refused to denounce racists, said that women who seek illegal abortions should be criminally punished, then immediately flip-flopped, re-engaged over and over with protesters and insulted Cruz’s wife.
The result was that voter groups that have buttressed Trump all along the primary season wavered. Those who lack a college degree – a consistent Trump vote – went for the Texas senator over the New Yorker, according to exit polling of voters casting ballots on Tuesday.
Trump regularly wins independent voters in open primaries like Wisconsin’s; on Tuesday independent voters were split, and Cruz buried him among Republicans.
One of Trump’s signature issues was waved off by voters: the percentage saying immigration was an important issue was in the single digits, and by almost 2-to-1, voters favored a path to legalization for those in the country illegally, rather than the deportation Trump favors.
Still, it was clear that many Republicans were less entranced with Cruz than repelled by Trump. Among those who cast ballots in the Republican primary, about 3 in 5 said that they would be “concerned” or “scared” if Trump were elected president. Only 2 in 5 said they were “excited” or “optimistic” about Trump as president.
Republican voters had concerns about Cruz as well, with about 2 in 5 saying they were concerned or scared about his presidency. Even though Cruz won the primary, only about 1 in 8 Republican voters said they were “excited” about the prospect of him as president.
New York will test whether Trump’s difficulties were transitory or represent a coalescing of the anti-Trump vote around Cruz. At the very least, Trump has an opportunity as the race moves to his home turf: If some of the sentiment against him in Wisconsin stemmed from his rough-and-tumble actions against Cruz, Trump now will be casting for votes in a state where tough campaigning is not just expected, but demanded. And Cruz will be forced to curry favor in the state he openly derided in his past criticisms of Trump and “New York values.”
The Democratic race, meantime, moves to the type of contests in which Clinton has done far better this year: big states with diverse populations. New York, with its powerful African-American and minority voting blocs, also holds a closed primary in which only Democrats can cast ballots. The same is true in Pennsylvania, which votes a week after New York, and all but one of the other four states with primaries that day.
Even in her Wisconsin loss, Clinton carried black voters by more than 2-to-1. Her defeat rested mostly on independent voters, who went strongly for Sanders, while registered Democrats were split. There was a demographic warning sign for Clinton: She and Sanders split female voters, a group that has consistently been in the former secretary of State’s corner this year.
Still, Democrats remained more united than their Republican counterparts. About 7 in 10 of those who voted in Wisconsin’s Democratic primary said they were excited or optimistic about a Clinton presidency, and slightly more said the same about a Sanders presidency.
That unity may be threatened in the vitriolic days ahead, however.
For weeks, Clinton has largely ignored Sanders to focus her ire on Trump. But she cannot risk Sanders leveraging his Wisconsin win to sneak ahead of her in New York. Already she has grown more antagonistic toward him. Early Tuesday, her campaign sent out a full transcript of an interview Sanders had with the New York Daily News editorial board in which he was unable to offer details on some of his campaign’s basic promises, such as how to break up Wall Street banks.
He also faces more belligerent media coverage than he’s accustomed to; he was hit this week with glaring criticism for opposing a lawsuit by families against the manufacturer of the weapon used to kill six adults and 20 first-graders in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.
Front-runners can weather difficult patches. In 2008, Clinton was in the position Sanders is in now, winning late contests but unable to cut far enough into Barack Obama’s delegate lead to claim the nomination. In 2012, the Republican front-runner, Mitt Romney, was humbled by late-season defeats by his challengers.
Almost always, those front-runners end up as the nominees. But this year has been anything but usual. In both parties, the outcome now depends on whether Tuesday’s results turn out to have been harbingers of things to come or stumbles en route to the nomination.
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