Trump Loses in Wisconsin, But His Lead Remains Formidable

The Republican front-runner was thumped in nearly every demographic category in Tuesday’s primary.

Cruz, Sanders on Top in Wisconsin

The Stop Trump movement enjoyed its greatest victory so far, with Senator Ted Cruz defeating the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in Tuesday's Wisconsin primary almost any way the electorate could be sliced. 

Donald Trump lost among female voters by 13 percentage points, his worst margin other than a 16-point loss in Ohio on March 15, according to an exit poll published by CNN. He also fell short by 10 points among voters without college degrees, an important part of his national base. More than half of Wisconsin Republicans said they'd be concerned or scared if Trump was elected president. 

The defeat was so stinging that his campaign released a terse statement calling Cruz a “Trojan horse” who is “being used by the party bosses to steal the nomination from Mr. Trump.”

Yet the billionaire remains in the driver's seat in the nomination race, maintaining a commanding lead over Cruz in the delegate count and holding on to a real chance—albeit less of one after Tuesday's loss—of collecting the 1,237 he needs to clinch the nomination before the Republican convention in July.

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Trump has a 31-point lead in New York, which holds the next primary on April 19, according to a CBS News poll released Sunday. He has a 9-point lead in Pennsylvania, which follows on April 26, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday.

“This slows the momentum some, but it's not a major blow,” said Representative Tom Marino, a Pennsylvania Republican backing Trump.

Still, Marino said he raised concerns with Trump about how to better organize the campaign and urged the candidate to rein in his freewheeling style. Trump himself has noted his reluctance to tone down his campaign in recent weeks, telling crowds that his wife and daughter have both begged him to behave more “presidential” on the campaign trail. But Trump told audiences that he waved off those worries, saying he's only fighting back against a party establishment that he believes is treating him unfairly.

“He's had a bad week,” Marino said. “But tell me one person running for president, or Senate or city council who hasn't had a bad week. Donald Trump isn't used to being out on the campaign trail, but he's taking the advice. You've already seen a more presidential Donald Trump. But sometimes you fall off the wagon.”

Those slips—including a series of stumbles on his abortion position and the charging of his campaign manager with simple battery—cost Trump dearly, as he lost key parts of his base in Wisconsin to Cruz. Trump has won a plurality of female voters in 13 of 21 Republican contests with exit or entrance polls. But on Tuesday he lost this crucial voting bloc to Cruz by double digits.

Those who agreed the U.S. should temporarily ban Muslim immigrants, a position Trump was first to propose, said they backed Cruz more than Trump, according to exit polls. Just 6 percent of Wisconsin voters said immigration—the issue that powered Trump's rise to the top of national polls—was their top concern.

“Trump has been weighed down by a bulk of things, a compilation of things he said, has said, and his changes on issues,” said Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster who is advising Our Principles PAC, a super-PAC funded by long-time Republican donors aimed at stopping Trump.

“There have always been about one-third of the Republican electorate that was strongly for Trump, but there's another third that won't ever vote for him in a primary,” Goeas said. “And that opposition is becoming firmer of the recent weeks, and we're now seeing a critical mass.”

In response to the loss in Wisconsin, Trump's campaign said it continued to have “total confidence” that he will win the White House. Yet changes to his strategy are in evidence around the margins.

Seeking to keep better control of crowds and limit protests, his campaign held rallies in smaller-than-usual venues in Wisconsin. Offering a rare statement of regret, Trump admitted it was a mistake to repost an unflattering picture of his rival's wife on Twitter. Countering criticisms that his campaign lacked substance, Trump plans to deliver a series of policy speeches in the coming days. Among the topics: strengthening the nation's military, reforming the education system, and outlining the criteria by which a President Trump would select Supreme Court justices, according to his campaign.

Still, it didn't help in Wisconsin. Cruz won men and women, young and old, high-school graduates and those with post-graduate degrees. Cruz was the top choice for those who said their top issue was the economy, terrorism, or government spending.

“Tonight is a turning point,” Cruz said at his victory party in Wisconsin. “It is a rallying cry. It is a call from the hard working people of Wisconsin to the people of America. We have a choice. A real choice.”

Trump's only show of strength in the state was among those who identified themselves as moderate Republicans—with 40 percent of that group picking Trump, 31 percent Cruz, and 26 percent Ohio Governor Kasich. The governor, who cannot win the nomination without a convention fight, finished a distant third in Wisconsin.

On the eve of the primary, Cruz barnstormed the southern part of the state with a town hall in Madison, meet-and-greets in Kenosha and Milwaukee, and a rally in crucial Waukesha County. At the Mars Cheese Castle in Kenosha, an upbeat Cruz talked up the importance of a victory in Wisconsin, saying it would contribute to a “national trend” of Donald Trump getting “whooped.”

“It’ll make a powerful statement all across the country,” he said. “Number one, it will continue to add to our delegates. Number two, I think it will have a powerful impact on the states that are coming up. It will show what’s happening nationally, which is Republican are uniting behind our campaign.”

He touted the same policy prescriptions he’s been pushing for months—passing a flat tax, deregulating business activity, repealing Obamacare and stopping “amnesty”—but sprinkled some flavor for Wisconsinites who have lost manufacturing jobs, taking a page from Trump.

Cruz’s ideas, he promised, would “bring millions and millions of high paying jobs back to America—back from China, back from Mexico—bring manufacturing jobs back to the state of Wisconsin.”

At his victory rally on Tuesday, Cruz—who built his reputation on battling party leaders—seemed to pivot to the middle by quoting none other than John F. Kennedy, who accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960 with a dramatic vision.

“We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle,” Cruz said. “Tonight, Wisconsin has lit a candle guiding the way forward. Tonight, we once again have hope for the future.”

—With assistance from Kevin Cirilli.

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