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Donald Trump's Anti-Establishment Anger Might Backfire in Wisconsin

Trump faces long odds in Wisconsin, where the state's affinity for civility and their elected Republicans could hurt the bombastic frontrunner on Tuesday.

by Olivia Becker
Apr 4 2016, 6:52pm

Photo by Tannen Maury/EPA

On cable news and political publications across the country, one thing was clear last week: It was Donald Trump's worst week ever. First, his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was charged with simple battery after he allegedly grabbed a female journalist's arm. Trump vehemently denied Lewandowski did anything wrong. And then, a day later, Trump said that women who get illegal abortions should be punished, before changing his position no less than five times in the following three days.

Trump also seemed to determined to give the Republican Party a collective heart attack when he announced that he would no longer necessarily support the GOP presidential nominee if it isn't him.

This has all become a relatively standard antics for Trump on the campaign trail.

"I think I've had many bad weeks and I've had many good weeks," Trump said during an appearance on Face the Nation on Sunday. "I don't see this as the worst week in my campaign."

But that narrative may be difficult to maintain after Wisconsin's Republican primary on Tuesday. Trump is expected to suffer a massive loss there, where he is currently trailing Texas Senator Ted Cruz by ten points, according to a Marquette Law School poll conducted last week. Trump has a 70 percent disapproval rating among all Wisconsin voters, the highest of any of the presidential candidates.

Related: Donald Trump Says He Wants to Punish Women for Illegal Abortions, Then Completely Reverses His Position

At first glance, Wisconsin seems like it would be friendly territory for Trump. It is a largely white, blue-collar state in the Midwest with an open primary, all of which are factors that have worked in Trump's favor in past contests.

But Trump has never been liked among Wisconsinites. His exceptionally bad week has only built on a previous distaste for the frontrunner in the state, according to Barry Burden, a political scientist at University of Wisconsin in Madison. Trump has no ground operation in the state and only started holding events there in recent days leading up to the primary on Tuesday. He has made inroads with small pockets of voters concentrated in the rural north and west parts of the state, who are largely uneducated and lower class. But he has failed to find support in any high-population centers and surrounding suburbs elsewhere in the state, which are where most of the so-called establishment Republicans are concentrated.

Trump's unpopularity is even more stark when it comes to Wisconsin women. Only 24 percent of women support Trump, according to the same Marquette poll, which was conducted before Lewandowski was charged and Trump made his initial statements about abortion.

And there are also a high number of women in "critical positions" in the Wisconsin state legislature who are "very unhappy" with the possibility of Trump winning their party's nomination, according to Dennis Riley, a political science professor at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Like their male counter parts, many of these elected Republican women are worried that the sitting Republican Senator Ron Johnson will lose to his reelection to Democratic challenger Russ Feingold if Trump is on the ballot in November, Riley said.

Trump also has no support from members of the state Republican Party. This may have been a selling point for Trump elsewhere in the country but in Wisconsin, the establishment is actually not despised. The state is home to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, and Governor Scott Walker, three of the most prominent so-called establishment Republicans voices who Trump has spent months attacking.

Trump has taken particular glee in going after Walker, who has a 80 percent approval rating among Wisconsin Republicans. Trump took credit for Walker dropping out of the Republican race last fall, boasting that "we sent him packing like a little boy."

Related: Sanders and Clinton Compete To Be the Most Anti-Scott Walker Ahead of Wisconsin Primary

Trump also bashed Walker's record at running the state last week, after the governor announced that he was endorsing Cruz.

"Wisconsin has a lot of problems, plus there is tremendous hatred. ... I wouldn't exactly say that things are running smoothly," Trump said during an interview with conservative radio host Michael Koolidge last Tuesday. "

It's an unusual and risky move for a Republican candidate to arrive in Wisconsin and immediately focus on attacking the sitting Republican politicians there, Burden said. "That does warm him to most Republican voters." Republicans there are actually a relatively cohesive group, added Burden, and generally don't view their elected officials as the enemy.

Trump's insult-heavy style of campaigning may have won him favor elsewhere in the country, but it's not endearing him to many of Wisconsin's famously polite residents, Burden added. Trump came in third in neighboring Minnesota, known for a similar midwestern "Minnesota Nice" politeness, last month.

"[Trump's] style does not line up well with the political culture of the state," Burden said. "Even in these polarized times, it has been a fairly civil conversation [among Republicans]."

Wisconsin has seen its fair share of divisive politics after the 2012 recall of Gov. Walker, who managed to maintain his seat in a nasty, divisive election. "Wisconsinites are not interested in bitterness right now," Riley said. "They're tired of it."

Conservative Wisconsin radio host Charlie Sykes, who conducted a scathing interview with Trump last week, said that the GOP frontrunner has "misread the culture and misread the political landscape."

"We value decency and civility and rationality and reasonableness, none of which is associated with Donald Trump's campaign," Sykes said on ABC's This Week on Sunday. "When this political music man comes into Wisconsin, he's actually coming into a town where we kind of see through his scam."

The Never Trump movement is hoping to capitalize on Trump's lack of appeal in the Badger State by denying him all of Wisconsin's 42 delegates. The state divvies up 24 of their delegates between the winners of each congressional district and awards all of the remaining 18 to the candidate who wins the majority of votes statewide. Riley expects Trump to walk away with at least a few delegates on Tuesday, but even that would still be one of his biggest losses to Cruz this year.

Related: America's Largest Border Patrol Union Just Endorsed Donald Trump

A loss in Wisconsin won't be the end of Trump, but it will likely put a dent in his Teflon-coated campaign, according to Riley. After Wisconsin, Colorado Republicans will select their presidential choice at a state convention on Friday. And then its off to New York, one of the biggest primaries of the 2016 presidential race, where Trump is favored to win. But with two weeks before New York votes on April 19, Trump will have a lot of time to defend a potentially major loss in Wisconsin. "That's not a narrative he wants to deal with," Riley said.

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @oliviaLbecker