MILWAUKEE, Wis. — If Ted Cruz had narrowly won Wisconsin on Tuesday, his campaign would have hailed it as a victory. As it happened, he won by much more than anyone predicted, handing frontrunner Donald Trump his first primary election day without a win since Iowa. As of this writing, Cruz will likely win the vast majority of the Badger State’s 42 delegates
According to exit polls, he won nearly every demographic group among Republicans — men and women, young and old, Republicans and independents, every level of education (even those with post-graduate degrees), and every income level.
So where does Cruz go from here? Literally, he goes to New York, which holds its primary April 19 and where Trump enjoys a 30-point lead in the polls. For all the buzz about his Wisconsin win, Cruz will likely lose in New York, maybe by a lot. He’ll also likely lose the April 26 primary in Pennsylvania, where Trump leads by double-digits.
But strategically, Cruz needs to keep pressing his unity message. In the flush of victory Tuesday night, that was his theme. “We’re winning because we’re uniting the Republican Party,” he said, noting again that of the 17 GOP candidates who began the race, five have endorsed him—including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose endorsement last week gave the Texas senator a boost at just the right moment.
Cruz said his Wisconsin performance, as well as his success in gaining delegates at state and district conventions in Colorado, North Carolina, and North Dakota over the last two weekends, represented the “full spectrum of the Republican Party coming together and uniting behind this campaign.” He called on “independents, libertarians, and Reagan Democrats” to come together and support him.
That unity message will be just as important in states that have already held their primaries as it is in states that haven’t. Because Cruz’s campaign is well-organized at the state level among grassroots conservatives, he could substantially build his delegate count ahead of the national GOP convention in July—even in states Trump has already won.
The delegate wins in Colorado and North Carolina, where Cruz claims to have picked up at least 17 more delegates, underscore the importance for Cruz of a strong and ongoing delegate strategy in each state. Trump seems to have been wholly unaware of district and state conventions, which elect actual delegates to send to the national convention and are governed by byzantine rules that differ from state to state, up until a few days ago.
Since it’s all but impossible at this point for Cruz to win the 1,237 delegates he would need to win the nomination on the first ballot at the national convention, every delegate he deprives from Trump will get him closer to a contested convention and the possibility of winning unbound delegates on a second ballot.
All of that, of course, is a bit inside baseball. For now, ordinary Americans will have plenty of time to see the increasingly stark differences between Cruz and Trump as their campaigns slug it out through April and May. For anyone paying attention, the contrasts are easy to see. For example, Cruz quoted Milton Friedman in his victory speech Tuesday, averring that free enterprise and fewer government regulations offer the best path to prosperity. “If we get Washington out of the way,” he said. “There’s no limit to what we can accomplish.”
That’s not the kind of thing voters will ever hear Trump say. Give them enough opportunities to hear the two candidates and they just might start to notice. They certainly did in Wisconsin, where Trump turned out not to have nearly as much support as polls and pundits suggested. Many voters whose demographic profiles suggested they would vote for Trump instead backed Cruz.
Some of them even canvassed for Cruz door-to-door, like Jim Trudeau, a Milwaukee truck-driver and member of the Teamsters local union. Trudeau attended the victory rally Tuesday night with his entire family, all of whom sported Cruz shirts and hats. He and one of his adult sons, who works in landscaping, canvassed for Cruz in Milwaukee’s Northwest suburbs this week. “We’re not a political family,” he said. “We’ve never done anything like this before. But we felt like helping Cruz was important enough to get involved.”