Upset victories threaten Wisconsin’s bellwether status

Upsets by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the Wisconsin primaries could change Wisconsin’s traditional role in the primary process.

Image By: Courtesy of Jessi Schoville and Leah Voskuil

The Badger State may have seen an end to its 28-year streak of choosing the eventual presidential candidates on Tuesday night. Wisconsin chose two underdogs, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and ignited further uncertainty for the remainder of the election.

Wisconsin’s primary is historically the best in the country for predicting the eventual nominees, with a 93.8 percent success rate, according to the Washington Post. Aside from voting for Gary Hart for Democratic nominee in 1988, Wisconsin has accurately predicted the final candidates from both parties in every primary since 1968.

Wisconsin is a battleground state with voter bases on both sides of the aisle and candidates fighting hard to address the range of concerns among voters in the rural and urban parts of the state.

“You've got a liberal faction like Madison but you've also got the outstate population that is sizable,” said professor Dhavan Shah, director of the Mass Communication Research Center at UW-Madison. “So there are a lot of different constituencies that you have to address and satisfy in order to win a primary in this state.”

This affects statewide elections as well, according to Mike Wagner, associate professor in the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“Wisconsin has two robust political parties,” Wagner said. “We have one of the most conservative senators in Ron Johnson and one of the most liberal senators in Tammy Baldwin. We have a state that will elect Scott Walker and Jim Doyle right on the heels of each other.”

A more obvious reason that makes Wisconsin a good candidate predictor is the timing of the state’s primary.

“Because we're so late, [the primary] is usually over by the time we vote,” said UW-Madison Political Science Department Chair David Canon. “In this case where we picked the underdogs, I think it shows what an unusual election year this is. More things are still up for grabs now than would typically be true.”

States like Wisconsin that usually offer some predictive value for the country as a whole are often referred to as “bellwether states,” but Canon feels more comfortable distinguishing it as a battleground state.

“Bellwether is a little more random in whether or not a state really does end up being able to have a predictive value in terms of how the rest of the country is going to go,” he said.

While Canon said observers shouldn’t put too much weight on Wisconsin as a microcosm for national trends, this fact doesn’t deter from the prominence of Tuesday’s election.

“One thing that clearly has been true with the primary in Wisconsin is that it did have national significance in the fact that no one else had a primary on that day and it was seen as being critical for both Cruz and for Sanders,” Canon said.

Wisconsin’s Republican voters have a long track record of picking front-runners over insurgents, according a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel report. This trend is also tied to the state’s tendency to side with the more traditional candidate.

“On the Republican side, the insurgent in this case is actually the establishment candidate,” Wagner said. “Ted Cruz is much more a conventional republican than Donald Trump, so in that case, Wisconsin is trying to stop the insurgent.”

Cruz’s win, aided by missteps from business mogul Donald Trump leading up to the election, offered huge momentum to the Republican party’s attempt to take down Trump and boosted the likelihood of a contested convention.

“This was kind of the heart of the ‘Never Trump’ movement but whether or not that will sustain him as he moves back to the East Coast in places like New York and Pennsylvania, that's a real question,” Shah said.

On the Democratic side, Sanders’ win didn’t have quite the power of Cruz’s, but his double-digit victory certainly validated his prominence in the election. Despite his recent winning streak, Wagner predicts the Vermont senator will continue to trail behind Hillary Clinton in the coming primaries.

“I think we're going to see a lot of the same which is fairly close races, wins for Clinton, wins for Sanders, but roughly the same delegate lead for Clinton the rest of the way,” he said.

Going forward into the final primaries, it’s possible Wisconsin will hang on to its high nominee prediction rate, but this unusual election is sure to give it a run for its money.

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