What rich irony, if one of the most calculating politicians in modern American politics miscalculated the will of Wisconsin’s Republican voters, something Democrats have done repeatedly since 2010.
If Donald Trump loses Wisconsin’s primary on Tuesday, it will not be because of the uproar over his comments about Ted Cruz’s wife, Heidi. Or his reaction to the confrontation with a female reporter that led to an arrest summons for his campaign manager. Or even his suggestion that women who get abortions should face "some form of punishment" if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
Instead, it will be his misunderstanding of Badger State conservatives’ deep relationship with their elected officials, one that does not take well to outsiders trying to divide them from the people they worked so hard to put and keep in office.
Trump ran into a buzz saw in Wisconsin last week when he went on the local talk-radio circuit, which is staunchly conservative and widely influences Republican voters — very different from national talk-show hosts who don’t ask him tough questions and lean toward rabble-rousing rather than ideological discussions.
Had he gone to Wisconsin with a message of growing the manufacturing base or his signature make-America-great-again line, Trump might have triumphed with voters who are mainly located in the state’s small towns and rural areas.
Wisconsin is not a transient state; most of its people have lived there all of their lives and can trace their origins for several generations. It is a state filled with national pride and nostalgia; Trump has done well in states with strong traditional cultures such as Illinois and Michigan.
But, in Wisconsin, he tried to lead a mutiny against a GOP establishment whose elected officials are quite popular.
Most Republican voters aren’t looking to stab their guys in the back; they like U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Gov. Scott Walker.
They also like Republican national chairman Reince Priebus, who steered upset wins in 2010 in a state previously dominated by Democrats. Under Priebus, Republicans won control of the state Senate and state Assembly and elected Walker and Johnson; Priebus did so by bringing together the state’s tea-party movement and the GOP establishment.
Wisconsin Republicans also worked hard to elect a Republican attorney general and a conservative majority on the state Supreme Court, and to re-elect Walker three times — twice for four-year terms and once in a recall election orchestrated by Democrats, who tried desperately to remove him and the GOP’s legislative majority by importing out-of-state union protesters and funding.
Although the make-America-great message would have worked great in Wisconsin, Trump instead went full bully — a divisive attack that fell flat among party regulars.
"Remember, Wisconsin is the site of a big Republican movement where the tea party, Republican Party, local talk-radio and the business community have worked together to achieve their successes," said Brad Todd, a Republican strategist at On Message, a Washington firm, who has worked on numerous successful state races. "They are not the enemy to the Republican regular voters — Democrats are."
So when Trump talks about Republicans sticking it to people, instead of talking about how he would make America great, he simply doesn’t resonate in this state.
If Trump does not win three districts in Wisconsin on Tuesday, this primary could become his Waterloo. He needs that — along with 45 out of 53 districts in California, 50 percent of the vote in New York and Connecticut, a strong showing in West Virginia, a win in New Jersey, five out of nine districts in Indiana and all of Pennsylvania’s statewide delegates — to reach the magic number needed for a first-ballot victory at the Republicans’ national convention.
As of today, only West Virginia seems certain for him.
Trump, the master of calculation, appears to have miscalculated and can blame no one but himself.
When history books look back at the reason and the moment when Donald Trump fatally faltered, they should recall that it wasn’t the many outrageous things he said, nor was it the success of any "stop Trump" movement. It was on him, when his instincts failed him in Wisconsin.
Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media ([email protected]).