Looking back on the string of strange and ugly news bytes that augured Donald Trump's downward spiral in Wisconsin—the Heidi Cruz retweet, the inexplicable attacks on Scott Walker, the endless contradictions on abortion—there were two moments that, in hindsight, seem particularly instructive to understanding what went what the hell is going on in the Republican Party in 2016.
The first was during a campaign rally in Janesville, Wisconsin, when Trump mentioned the city's most famous resident, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan. It wasn't clear what Trump planned to say about the Wisconsin congressman—whose district includes Janesville—but it didn't really matter: The crowd erupted in boos and hisses anyway. Even Trump seemed taken aback. "Wow. I was told be nice to Paul Ryan," he said. "I'm very surprised by this statement. Are you all Republicans?"
Outside, Beth Schmidt, chairwoman of the Rock County Republican Party, was wondering the same thing. "I don't know anybody here," she told me, looking over the impromptu overflow crowd that had gathered in the parking lot. After two heated gubernatorial elections and a recall, not to mention dozens of heated state legislative and judicial nominations, in the last five years, Schmidt, like most local party officials in Wisconsin, is pretty familiar with the area's Republican voters. But amongst the tailgating Trump fans in Janesville, she looked distinctly out of place.
"Clearly he is bringing in people," she said. "I just don't know who they are. They've never been involved in politics before." When I asked about the crowd's response to Ryan, Schmidt seemed bewildered: "That was very strange," she admitted. "I honestly can't tell you what that was about."
The circumstances were reversed a few days later, at Milwaukee's American Serb Hall, where Sarah Palin tagged in for Trump at a county GOP dinner featuring the three remaining candidates. Palin was characteristically crazy, rambling about gift baskets for illegal immigrants and the crimes of #Benghazi—but the lines that once ignited Republican crowds fell flat among Wisconsin's party activists. As she spoke, the audience was visibly restless, checking phones, and pushed coleslaw around on paper plates. A group of young volunteers seated near me snickered quietly. When Palin declared that "Trump is the only one who talks rationally" about foreign policy, a couple of people in the hall burst out laughing.
The reactions to both Palin and Ryan were startling. These are, after all, the GOP's two most recent vice-presidential candidates, each selected for a perceived ability to unite disparate wings of the conservative base. Together, the two incidents hinted at a hostile new polarization in the GOP primary, between the angry, "undocumented Republicans" supporting Donald Trump, and mainstream party activists turned off by the frontrunner and his fans.
Results from Wisconsin's primary last week confirmed this rift, revealing a Republican electorate deeply divided over the two candidates most likely to become the party's nominee. While Texas Senator Ted Cruz easily won Tuesday's vote, taking in nearly half of the Republican vote and all but six of Wisconsin's 42 delegates, exit polls showed that the victory wasn't so much the result of support for his own campaign, but a widespread fear of Trump among the state's conservative voters.
According to a CNN exit poll, a full 72 percent of Cruz voters in Wisconsin—and 55 percent of all Republican primary voters—said they would be scared or concerned if Trump was elected president. In contrast, 57 percent of Trump supporters said the same about President Cruz, which is still a More striking is the poll's finding that Wisconsin voters for both Trump and Cruz in Wisconsin would defect from the party if the other candidate won the nomination: In a race between Hillary Clinton and Trump, for instance, 66 percent of Cruz voters said they would pick a third-party candidate. Among Trump supporters, disinterest in the other Republican was even stronger, with 70 percent choosing a third-party candidate in a race between Clinton and Cruz.
All this suggests a pretty deep disconnect, and distrust, between supporters of the two leading Republican candidates. While it's difficult to draw big conclusions from Wisconsin's exit data alone, the numbers do offer a glimpse into just how acrimonious—and potentially irreconcilable—the party's split might be by the time it picks its nominee at the convention this summer.
With Cruz's win in Wisconsin, the race is now virtually guaranteed to drag on until the final primary, in June, and it's significantly less likely—though possible—that Trump will get the delegates he needs to lock up the nomination outright. The Cruz campaign is now systematically trying to fill the convention with his supporters, getting them elected as state delegates so they can vote for him on a second ballot.
So far, his campaign has been pretty effective at this, following up its Wisconsin victory by picking up 28 pledged delegates in Colorado and installing loyalists among the delegates in Iowa, South Carolina, and Michigan this past weekend. If the sentiments these delegates have about Trump is even close to the feelings seen in the Wisconsin polls, it's not hard to imagine a scenario in which Trump-fearing Cruz supporters throw up hurdles for the frontrunner at the convention, even if Trump manages to win the nomination outright.
By the same token, Trump and his supporters are equally committed to making sure that the Cruz campaign isn't able to out-strategize their campaign on the floor of the convention. And what Trump and his troops lack in organization, they seem to make up for in enthusiasm, at least according to the Wisconsin exit polls. The same CNN exit poll found that almost all of Trump's supporters—90 percent, if you're counting—feel "excited" about the idea of their candidate as president. By comparison, the number of Cruz supporters who said the same about their guy wasn't even high enough to register in CNN's exit results.
Moreover, according to an ABC News exit poll, an overwhelming 83 percent of Trump voters—and 56 percent of Wisconsin's Republican voters overall—think that in the event of a contested convention, the nomination should go to the candidate who won the most votes in the primaries, while just 14 percent said that it should go to the best candidate in the race. Combined, the results suggest that Trump's supporters will be ready for a fight for their guy on the floor of the convention, should the events call for that.
Trump's campaign seems to be preparing, and even galvanizing its supporters, for this outcome, promising "riots" in Cleveland if the Republican Party tries to nominate someone not named Donald Trump. In the week since the Wisconsin primary, reports suggest that Trump has retooled his campaign operation to focus on the more arcane elements of delegate selection, bringing on seasoned GOP operatives to handle convention strategy. As the campaign continues to bleed delegates, though, Trump's flaks have accused the campaign of using "Gestapo tactics" to win the nomination.
The Trump campaign's own statement on Cruz's win in the Badger State hints at the kind of batshit lunacy we can expect should the establishment mount a challenge to his coronation this summer. "Ted Cruz is worse than a puppet—he is a Trojan horse, being used by the party bosses attempting to steal the nomination from Mr. Trump," his campaign said in a statement to reporters last week. "Mr. Trump is the only candidate who can secure the delegates needed to win the Republican nomination and ultimately defeat Hillary Clinton, or whomever is the Democratic nominee, in order to Make America Great Again."
Of course, it's too early to tell how the convention will go down when the primary races are said and done. The Trump campaign seems to have recovered, at least in some Trumpian sense of the word, from last week's disastrous defeat, and seems poised to lock up a sizable win in New York's primary next week. But last Tuesday's polls do hint at a more inflexible break between the frontrunner's supporters and the rest of the GOP. Considering that those two groups will be crammed together for hours on the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena, at this point it seems safe to expect chaos in some form when the race finally ends in Cleveland this July.
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