Apr 6, 2016 8:00 PM

Wisconsin: GOP outlier or signs of trouble for Trump?

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON, D.C. (AP) In the end, maybe the "Cheeseheads" just weren't angry enough for Donald Trump.

Wisconsin Republicans were less incensed than GOP primary voters in most states where Trump had previously triumphed, according to exit polls from the state's presidential primary Tuesday. Almost six out of 10 primary voters also expressed concern or even fear about the bombastic billionaire occupying the Oval Office.

Those dynamics, reinforced by a bumpy few weeks of campaigning, added up to a double-digit victory for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in Tuesday's Wisconsin primary, complicating Trump's path to winning the nomination outright and increasing the possibility of a contested convention when Republican delegates gather this summer in Cleveland.

Cruz declared his victory a turning point in the nomination fight, trying to buttress his claim as the clear alternative for Republicans wary of making Trump their general election candidate.

The question going forward: Are Wisconsin Republicans outliers or has Cruz consolidated support in a winnowed field and exposed Trump weaknesses that will carry over into upcoming contests concentrated in the northeast?

According to the exit polls conducted Tuesday for the Associated Press and television networks by Edison Research, a third of voters Tuesday described themselves as "angry" about the federal government, and Trump managed only to break even with Cruz among those voters.

On March 15, when Trump notched primary wins in several states, he far outpaced his closest competitors among self-described "angry" Republicans, who accounted for about 40 percent of the primary electorate in Florida, Missouri and North Carolina all Trump victories. In Florida, Trump more than doubled up his nearest competitor among the angry GOP faction to fuel his biggest win of the day.

Trump also failed in Wisconsin to match many of his previous performances among Republicans who described themselves as "dissatisfied," as opposed to angry. Cruz won more than half of those voters Tuesday, more than 20 percentage points ahead of Trump. Trump lost those voters in Missouri and North Carolina on March 15, but generally not by such wide margins.

Wisconsin followed a similar trend along ideology, with Cruz outpacing Trump among "somewhat conservative" Republicans and trouncing him among "very conservative" GOP voters. The latter group often aligned with Cruz in earlier primaries, but Trump had enjoyed considerable success and sometimes big margins among the "somewhat conservative" slice of the Republican electorate.

Wisconsin GOP voters were roughly split on their preference for the next president to have political experience versus being an outsider.

Trump garnered just 8 percent of the vote among Wisconsin Republicans who want a president with political experience. That's not out of line with what he had drawn from similar voters in earlier states, but Cruz managed 68 percent support from those voters the highest total any single Trump opponent has managed aside from Kasich in his home state of Ohio.

It's also evidence of Trump's struggle to consolidate GOP support even as the field has narrowed, with the result denting what has been one of his predictable advantages throughout the primary season.

Trump's Wisconsin slide was further evident among less-educated and working-class Republicans.

He drew support from fewer than four out of 10 Wisconsinites without a college degree; in the March 15 primaries, he won about half of Republicans at that education level. In North Carolina, Missouri and North Carolina, Trump also won or nearly tied Cruz in every income classification. In Wisconsin, it was Cruz who demonstrated strength across income strata, even managing a near tie with Trump among voters with income of less than $50,000.

Many of those measures could support Cruz's contention that he is consolidating support of a majority of primary voters in a party where many leaders are openly contemptuous of tapping Trump as their standard-bearer.

There were, nonetheless, plenty of signs leading up to Tuesday that Wisconsin was never going to align behind Trump.

For several weeks, Milwaukee's conservative talk radio personalities near-unanimously tried to expose Trump as a charlatan, and WTMJ's influential Charlie Sykes would endorse Cruz two weeks before the primary.

Cruz also won the backing from the state's elected Republican leadership, led by Gov. Scott Walker, himself a failed GOP presidential hopeful.

The radio influences helped Cruz in the semicircle of suburban counties outside Milwaukee. Among them, Ozaukee, Washington and Waukesha counties account for roughly 40 percent of Wisconsin's GOP primary electorate.

Cruz outmaneuvered Trump in the next most pivotal region of the state, the Fox River valley which runs northeast from Madison to Green Bay. Cruz campaigned up and down this rural and working-class corridor for a week, before Trump even arrived in the state. Cruz also tailored his message to reach the mid-state region's manufacturing workers, a demographic that could be useful in a general election campaign.


Associated Press reporters Thomas Beaumont and Jill Colvin and polling director Emily Swanson contributed to this report.


Follow Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP .


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