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Diplomacy in Action

The Wisconsin Primary: State of the Race as Wisconsin Voters Go to the Polls

Craig Gilbert, Washington Correspondent, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Milwaukee, WI
April 4, 2016




11:00 A.M. EST

THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.

MODERATOR: Hello, everyone, and welcome. Today, on behalf of the Foreign Press Center, I would like to introduce Mr. Craig Gilbert, who is the Washington correspondent for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the author of the Wisconsin Voter Blog. Today he’s here to discuss The Wisconsin Primary: the State of the Race as Wisconsin Voters Go to the Polls. Without further ado, here is Mr. Gilbert.

MR GILBERT: Hi, everybody. So let me talk just briefly before we go to your questions about – not so much about the kind of national narrative and the race but about local factors, things you may not know about the state of Wisconsin, about the political rules, about the demographics of the state, and also about the recent political history of the state, which are all pretty relevant in this case.

So you’ve seen probably in the coverage on the Republican race – read about some of the political dynamics within the state of Wisconsin. It’s the home of Reince Priebus, the national chairman of the Republican Party; of Paul Ryan, the House Speaker; and of Governor Scott Walker, who ran for President and was forced out of the race in part by the performance of Donald Trump.

So Donald Trump has had kind of an interesting kind of clashes with each of those men, with the national party, particularly with Scott Walker, who he debated on the campaign trail and then whose record he has attacked quite sharply at several times – at several points during the campaign, including last week, and also Paul Ryan, who’s been critical of Mr. Trump. And so that creates some kind of local – interesting local dynamics in this race.

And Wisconsin is a place where the conservative critics of Trump and the Republican Party critics of Trump have kind of come together within the state to try to deny him. Part of that coalition is Governor Walker, but also a part of it is conservative media, including conservative talk radio, which is particularly influential in the southeastern part of Wisconsin in the Milwaukee area where a lot of Republican voters live. And when Mr. Trump came into the state, he did a series of interviews with these talk radio hosts that were really, really adversarial. I don’t think he was expecting – I don’t think he was fully briefed on the kind of environment he was stepping into.

But Wisconsin has turned out to be a place where the Republican Party and the kind of world of conservative activists has sort of almost handed off their infrastructure to Ted Cruz as the vehicle for stopping Donald Trump – not that they were necessarily big Ted Cruz supporters going into this process, but they decided that he was the guy they needed to get behind if they didn’t want Donald Trump.

On the Democratic side, it’s considered to be a pretty good state for Bernie Sanders for a couple of big reasons. It’s an open primary in Wisconsin. We don’t have registration by party. So Independents are free to vote. There’s going to be a big Independent vote probably on both sides, and that’s good for Bernie Sanders because he does much better with Independents. And it’s also a state – a pretty white state. So African Americans are a big factor in the city of Milwaukee, but in the rest of the state they’re not much of a presence. And so that is good for Bernie Sanders because that’s Hillary Clinton’s political base in some ways.

But it’s a competitive race. The polling shows it’s been within single digits. Hillary Clinton competed here eight years ago against Barack Obama and lost by 17 points. So her recent history in the state is not great. I think she’ll do better this time but, again, at this point Bernie Sanders is the favorite in Wisconsin.

Donald Trump on the Republican side has been behind in the polls, and it’s not just because of the Republican establishment coming together against him in recent weeks. It’s also true that he’s been – his polling numbers have been kind of below average in Wisconsin throughout this entire campaign. And it’s not entirely clear why, but I think it has something to do with the political culture of the state and the fact that his personality and his rhetoric maybe don’t – aren’t as appealing in this part of the country as they might be in some of other places and also because of his clashes with some of the local Republicans. But it’s been pretty consistent that he’s been – he’s had very high negatives in Wisconsin compared to other places, even among Republicans, and particularly in the most Republican part of the state, which is a big problem for him in a Republican primary.

One last thing about the rules in Wisconsin: On the Republican side, in terms of how the delegates are allocated to the different candidates, Wisconsin is a state that allocates the majority of its delegates by congressional districts and the rest by the statewide results. And so whoever wins statewide will get 18 of the 42 delegates, and then you get three delegates for every congressional district you win, and there are eight of those. So somebody – if – I think the takeaway is that if you – if Ted Cruz can win, can beat Donald Trump by a significant margin, he could walk away with all the delegates. In a close race, Donald Trump could still finish second and walk away with some delegates from the parts of the state where he’s more popular, which is generally the northern part of the state.

On the Democratic side, because the Democrats do everything proportionally, it’s very difficult to win a large percentage of delegates no matter how much you win by. And so probably whatever – however well Bernie Sanders does in Wisconsin and whatever boost that gives his campaign, he’s not going to make big delegate gains against Hillary Clinton, because it’s just very difficult to do that under this system. He’ll probably gain a net advantage of fewer than 10 delegates in the state of Wisconsin in terms of his advantage over Hillary Clinton even if he wins the state.

So with that, I’m happy to take your questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, if you’d like to ask a question, please press * then 1. Once again, for any questions or comments, it is *1 at this time.

And we will go to the line of Andreas Ross with the Frankfurter Allgemeine [Zeitung, Germany]. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you so much for doing this. My question is a little bit about the conservative ideology that’s prevalent in Wisconsin. I’ve read that usually – and I think you’ve alluded to that – a person like Ted Cruz should not be the favorite in a state like Wisconsin. However, we’ve on the national level seen that Governor Scott Walker, when he was running, he was quite to the right side of the spectrum and celebrated at places – in places like CPAC. So could you elaborate a little bit on the ideological differences between sort of the Scott Walker brand of conservatism versus a Ted Cruz brand of conservatism and how that plays in Wisconsin? Thanks.

MR GILBERT: Yeah. I mean, there are some similarities. I mean, they’re both evangelical and they’re both very conservative. But Scott Walker when he was governor – his sort of political identity had much more to do with economic issues and his fight with labor than it did with social and cultural issues. So he was successful in winning enough independent votes to win his three recent elections for governor. He’s certainly to the right of the average voter in Wisconsin, but I think, partly because of the dynamics of the fight over labor and the recall fights in Wisconsin, he had a large enough coalition to win three modest but meaningful victories in the state.

Right now if you look at the polling in the Republican race, Ted Cruz is doing his best with the most conservative voters. It’s a mixed electorate. There are moderates – there will moderates voting, there will be mainstream conservatives voting, and there will be strong conservatives voting. It’s not a state with a big evangelical population. I mean, it’s a significant minority of the Republican vote, but it’s certainly much smaller than it was in the Iowa caucuses. And so that’s obviously a good vote for Ted Cruz, but it’s not the sort of – I wouldn’t say it’s the important – most important dynamic in the state of Wisconsin. It’s Ted Cruz is somebody who is benefiting from the stop Trump sentiment in the state. He – if you go back and look at the polling as late as November of last year, he was in single digits in Wisconsin, and he sort of crept up a little bit as the field has narrowed. But again, it’s really a phenomenon of the last several weeks of influential conservatives and Republicans getting behind him, I think, that has enabled him to kind of build up his numbers in Wisconsin and inherit the support that may have been there for some of the candidates like Rubio and Carson, who got out of the race.

But the other thing I’d just mention about Wisconsin is that it’s been such a polarized state, and it was polarized to begin with, but during the war over Governor Walker became even more so, that I think it’s hardened some of the political lines in the state. It’s probably helped to make the Republican Party a little bit more conservative in some respects. But again, there is still – you see Trump and Kasich getting more of their support from moderate voters in the state, and it’s a high turnout state. I mean, we’re talking about official projections of 40 percent of voting age adults voting, which is really high for a presidential primary – for a spring election, and that does kind of moderate the electorate a little bit. It’s not like the Iowa caucuses where so few people are voting that it’s all dominated by the most conservative voters on the Republican side or the most liberal voters on the Democratic side. It’s a big electorate, and so there will be a significant number of moderate voters voting, more on the Democratic side, but also to some degree on the Republican side.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question is from the line of Yashwant Raj with The Hindustan Times, [India]. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks, Craig, for doing this. Two questions, one about – in your opening remarks you referred briefly to the reasons why Trump could be trailing in the state, and you mentioned some – the RNC chairman is from the state, and Paul Ryan, and all of whom – Trump has kind of quarreled with all of them. In Charlie Sykes’s interview last week, I think, it came across as if the state was also revolted or rather put off, disgusted by Trump’s rhetoric, remarks about various things – insulting people, women, et cetera. So could you talk a little bit about this if this has indeed happened and that his remarks and his rhetoric have indeed offended voters in Wisconsin?

And also, if you could speak a little bit about Kasich’s chances – why a state like Wisconsin – again, as Sykes said, was like – likes good politics and clean politics. Why would they (inaudible) would not have more – why would Kasich not have more traction among such voters in the state?

MR GILBERT: So on the first question, I think there’s something to that. I don’t want to overstate it. It’s not like Wisconsin is completely different from other parts of the country. We’ve had some very bitter political wars in this state that I mentioned earlier. I mean, it’s pretty – it’s gotten pretty rough and it’s been very, very divisive. But I do think that Trump’s sort of political style is not a great fit for the state. I mean, even if you look at someone like Governor Walker, who’s an incredibly polarizing figure in the state, his personal style is actually pretty bland. It’s not ad hominem, it’s not personal. If you look at Paul Ryan, who’s pretty popular among Republicans in Wisconsin, same thing – I mean, he’s got a reputation for collegiality in Washington, he gets along personally with Democrats, he’s not a bomb-thrower. So those two are sort of more in the tradition of the traditional political style in Wisconsin, even though the ideology – the ideological lines have been very hard in some respects in Wisconsin.

So I think that just Trump’s sort of flamboyance, the ego, the personal stuff I think – and I have no way of proving this, but I do think that that has been a bigger negative for him in Wisconsin than maybe in some other places. There’s just no way of kind of really testing that in the polling data, but I think it makes sense to me.

And in terms of Kasich, it’s a good question. The – he’s someone with a conservative political history, but as you probably know, the Republican Party has moved to the right over time, and so one of – for example, a great illustration is that Kasich’s state chairman in Wisconsin is the former governor, Tommy Thompson, and former U.S. health secretary, who was the most successful modern day politician in this state. He won four elections for governor in the ‘80s and ‘90s, was hugely popular both in the Republican Party but also with Independents, and got a lot of crossover Democratic support. He won parts of the state that were traditionally Democratic. He was a pragmatist. But when he came back and ran for the Senate in 2012, he had a really hard time, even within his own party, because the party has moved to the right just as it has nationally. And that’s why you see Kasich having trouble, even in another Midwestern state like the state of Wisconsin. He is – he’s kind of out of step. He’s probably perceived by some very conservative voters in the Milwaukee area as not conservative enough, and then for some other voters who – to whom Trump is appealing, he’s a career politician. So he’s squeezed in that regard.

So he’s – we don’t know how well he’s going to do. I mean, maybe he has a chance to win some delegates. He could surprise some people. But right now he’s kind of suffering from being overshadowed by Trump and also from this kind of perception that Cruz is Trump’s main competition.

QUESTION: Can I ask a follow-up?

MR GILBERT: Yeah.

QUESTION: Sure. So if Trump were to lose, not win Wisconsin, as the polls show he likely will not, could it have a kind of a salutary effect on him? Could it change him, and all these things that have made him such a personality, he may be forced to take another look at that? It’s often what he’s hinting. I mean, he’s told – said in many interviews that his wife is asking, his wife and daughter is asking him to be more presidential, which he’s likely to be, et cetera, et cetera. Do you think Wisconsin could change the man, the candidate, potentially?

MR GILBERT: I’m a little skeptical, just because – I think the better question is: Why hasn’t that happened already? And I think if it had happened sooner, he’d be in better shape. But he’s talked about this in interviews, that he’s said that he’s getting advice to tone it down, but that he’s not sure that that’s what he should be doing.

And so even his arrival in this state – and he was – he had already fallen behind in the polls before last week, and so – but then after that, when he came into the state, and in his – the way he usually does, kind of picked a fight with the governor, and sort of attacking the governor’s record, and was talking about how terrible things were in Wisconsin, and terrible jobs, terrible wages – I mean, that was – if he was going to tone it down before he got here, he would have come in with a much different message. That’s not, I think, how – what he – (a) it’s not his personality and it’s not his style, but he also seems to think it’s tactically not even the best thing to do. So I guess I’d be a little surprised if we saw, like, a different Donald Trump coming out of Wisconsin if he were to lose here.

QUESTION: Thanks, Craig.

OPERATOR: And once again, if you would like to ask a question, it is *1 at this time.

And there are no further questions in the queue. Please continue.

And we do have a question from the line of Juliano Basile with Valor Economico, [Brazil]. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello. Thank you for doing this. I’m wondering if – do you think that Wisconsin primary could be a turning point in the Republican campaign? I mean, I was reading today Wall Street Journal, and they said that this could be Donald Trump’s worst nightmare because of the sophisticated electorate in the state. So I wonder if you could comment on that.

MR GILBERT: Well, that could be true. I think it’s – there are a number of factors that have come together to make this a challenging state for Donald Trump, even though when you look at the state’s kind of population mix and demographics, you would think it would be a pretty good state for him, because it’s very white and very blue-collar. In other words, a large percentage of the Republican voters in this state are kind of working-class white voters who don’t have college degrees, and that’s kind of a – that’s a voting group that has been very good for Donald Trump in most other states, but here less so.

And so I think these political factors and maybe cultural factors and also just sort of the moment in time in the race where things are happening, he’s struggling, he’s said – he made some comments that have been politically damaging – all these things have come together in Wisconsin and created this great opportunity for his critics to stop him here. But the big question is whether that’s transferable to other states, particularly New York, where I think it’s a much different political culture, and there’s no question that New York is a better political environment for Donald Trump if you look at the – how other east – northeastern states have voted in the primary so far.

So it’s really an open question as to whether Wisconsin will be a turning point and the start of a big shift in the race or whether it will be kind of a one-off and be just a place where all these factors came together and made it difficult for Donald Trump. I mean, even it is a one-off, I think it has an impact because it slows down his progress toward a majority of delegates. It kind of emboldens the stop Trump movement, and at a minimum it really kind of slows down whatever momentum Trump had towards consolidating the party at this stage of the race behind him. I mean, that’s going to be very difficult to do after Wisconsin. It may become easier for him to do if he then starts winning again. But at a minimum it prolongs the race and it slows him down and I think it gives more confidence to his opponents, not just to Ted Cruz but to the people in the Republican Party and the conservative movement who are looking for any way they can to deny Trump the nomination.

QUESTION: Can I do a follow-up for one?

MR GILBERT: Sure.

QUESTION: Do you think that the presidency election will affect the congressional election in Wisconsin in any way?

MR GILBERT: I think it’s – the election it’s most likely to affect is the race for the U.S. Senate. Wisconsin has a Republican senator – first-term Republican senator named Ron Johnson who was elected in the 2010 political wave, the Tea Party election, who had no experience in politics before that election. And he’s considered to be one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the Senate, so that Senate race is sort of a top target nationally for both parties. And his opponent is the Democratic senator he defeated six years ago named Russ Feingold, so he’s quite well known. And he’s – his opponent has been leading in all the polls. But as you may know, in Wisconsin but also across the country, ticket splitting has declined in the United States, meaning that there used to be lots of voters who might vote for one party for President but another party for Congress. And that – there’s a lot less of that than there used to be. There’s more party-line voting.

So for that reason, what happened in the presidential race has a more significant impact on these other races, and it’s very difficult if you’re a Republican running for the U.S. Senate in a state like Wisconsin to win in a year when your Republican candidate for President does badly at the top of the ticket. So for Ron Johnson, it’s going to be a huge problem for him if Republicans aren’t very competitive in the presidential race in Wisconsin. And Wisconsin is a state – even though Republicans have been successful in recent years in state government and in state elections, it’s been a long time since they won the state of Wisconsin in a presidential race. In fact, the last time was Ronald Reagan in 1984.

So it’s a tough state for Republicans at the presidential level because the turnout is higher and the electorate is more diverse. And that’s a problem for their U.S. Senate candidate. It has less impact for the U.S. House races because those districts that the Republicans represent are tilted in a Republican direction because of their makeup. So they start out with kind of a built-in advantage that can overcome even a bad political year. So they may not be in danger of losing House races in Wisconsin if they lose the presidential, but they will be very much in danger of losing the Senate race.

QUESTION: All right, thank you.

OPERATOR: And once again, it is *1 for any questions at this time. And we will go to the line of Anna Balloussier with Brazilian news. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, I’m Anna. I work for Folha de Sao Paulo in Brazil. I was wondering if you can mention, point out what was in your opinion the lowest moment for Donald Trump in this state?

MR GILBERT: Well, I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I mean, there were some very dramatic moments. I mean, the – his – the day before he arrived in the state, he did three interviews on talk radio, and they were just fascinating to listen to because they were so combative, and he was – he seemed kind of surprised by the tone of the interviews and the questions he got, and surprised by the fact that these conservative talk radio hosts were so anti-Trump. And so I don’t know what the impact of that is. I think there’s been a drumbeat against him on these radio shows for a long time, and I also don’t want to overstate the impact of talk radio, because it’s more significant in one part of the state, in the Milwaukee area, than it is in the rest of the state. But I also think his rhetoric about the governor probably doesn’t help him only because for some Republicans it kind of makes Donald Trump sound like a Democrat, because Democrats have been kind of attacking the economic record of the governor for many years now. We’ve had a very kind of intense debate in the state over how well the state is doing economically, and it’s a partisan state because you have a Republican governor who’s telling the voters that the state is doing really well, and then you have Democrats – his Democratic opponents telling voters the state is doing terribly under this governor, and then you have Donald Trump coming in and saying, yes, the state is doing terribly under Scott Walker.

So for some Republicans that’s – that makes Donald Trump sound like someone from the other party, but for other Republicans they’re probably receptive to that because people – there are a lot of people who are struggling in the state, as in other states, and this is a state that has lost a lot of industrial jobs over the years. So there is, I think, an audience for him here in struggling communities and in places where – that have really felt the loss particularly of blue-collar jobs.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

OPERATOR: And our next question is from the line of Luis Pinto with TV Globo, Brazil. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, hi, Mr. Gilbert. Thanks for doing this. Is there any scenario that Trump could claim be a positive one as an outcome for the vote tomorrow?

MR GILBERT: Well, he’s been trailing in the polls, but in some of the polls it’s been close. So even though he’s not expected to win, there are some wildcard factors at play here. I mentioned turnout. The turnout is supposed to be really high. The higher the turnout gets, I think the harder it is to predict the outcome of the election. And Wisconsin is a state that allows voters to register to vote on the same day of the election. Donald Trump has been doing better with voters who are voting for the first time in Republican primaries. They’re either not traditional voters or they’re not traditional Republicans. And in Wisconsin, there are no barriers to those voters the way there are in other states because it’s an open primary, so anybody can vote in the Republican primary no matter what their politics is. And it’s also a state where you don’t have to be registered to vote until the day of the election.

So it’s possible, in theory, that he could be – he could bring some new voters to the polls that aren’t – that – and he could do better than the polling is showing. We’ll just have to wait and see whether that happens. But if he’s – if it’s a close race, even if he – let’s say he loses but loses by a relatively small margin, he’s got a chance to win the northern part of the state, which could get him two or three congressional districts, which means in this case 6 or 9 delegates out of the 42. And he could argue, I think, that he faced kind of a unique set of obstacles here, that Wisconsin was a place where the whole establishment came together against him, and everybody from inside the state and outside the state piled on and did everything they could defeat him here, and he’s still standing. So I’m sure he’ll make that argument if he loses Wisconsin, that this was a kind of a unique state and they threw everything they could at him and now he’s going to move on to the next state.

We’ve seen in the past in these races that what happens in one state doesn’t predict the result in another state. But in Donald Trump’s case, the bigger issue for him has been – will be his difficulty in – at this stage in the race a frontrunner would normally be consolidating the support and growing support. And four years ago when Mitt Romney was in a similar situation in the Republican race, he came into Wisconsin and he was embraced by the establishment. Paul Ryan endorsed him and took him and took him all around the state, and that actually led to Paul Ryan being selected for his running mate later in the year. And everything came together for Mitt Romney at that point afterward. But that’s not happening for Donald Trump because of the nature of his candidacy and because of the resistance to him. So the bigger problem for him is his difficulties as a frontrunner, as someone with a big lead in delegates, in consolidating support in the party.

MODERATOR: Hello?

MR GILBERT: Hello.

MODERATOR: Yes. On behalf of the Foreign Press Center, there have been some technical difficulties. I’d like to read out a question that was emailed to us from someone who cannot apparently get in the question queue.

MR GILBERT: Okay.

MODERATOR: Okay. So from Marta Torres Ruiz from La Razon, her question is: “What is the future of the Republican Party if Trump becomes the nominee?”

MR GILBERT: That’s a big question and a good question. And we don’t know the answer because it would be such an extraordinary event. The question was if he becomes the nominee, right, not if he doesn’t become the nominee?

MODERATOR: Correct.

MR GILBERT: Yeah. So if he becomes the nominee, there will be some defections for sure in the party. I mean, we’ve heard – we don’t know how big they’re going to be. We know that among influential conservatives and Republicans there are people in the political class and in the conservative movement who have said they won’t support Donald Trump under any circumstances. There’s even a congressman, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin named Reid Ribble, who was I believe the first Republican member of Congress, and he said this last December, who said he would not support Donald Trump even if he is the nominee.

So there will be – if he’s the (inaudible) rallying around him but won’t be as much as there usually is, and there will be a lot of revolt in some parts of the conservative movement and within the party establishment that’s going to hurt him. And I think the expectation of a lot of Republicans is that it would be – there’s certainly a lot of fear about a devastating defeat in November. And it’s hard to know where that would leave the party going forward.

There’s also a big question about what happens to the party if Donald Trump doesn’t become the nominee and loses the nomination and what happens to his voters, because a lot of them might abandon the party too. So every election there are – there’s bitterness within the party over the nominating process, but usually people come together and put that behind them. That’s going to be a lot harder to do for the Republican Party whether Donald Trump is the nominee or is not the nominee.

OPERATOR: And once again, if you’d like to ask a question from the phone lines, it is *1. And sir, there are no further questions at this time.

MODERATOR: If there are no further questions, then this event is now concluded. I want to thank our speaker, Mr. Gilbert, and our journalists for participating. Thank you all and goodbye.

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