— -- Wisconsin will go down as the state that turned the tide –- or that turns the minds of anxious Republicans to what might have been.
Donald Trump’s loss proves a point the anti-Trump forces have been making with varying intensity for months. He was blown out, losing broadly and decisively in a big battleground state, in a winnowed field and in a primary that was open to independents as well as GOP regulars.
“Tonight is a turning point. It is a rallying cry,” Ted Cruz said in declaring victory, in words that his erstwhile enemies in the Republican establishment would gladly endorse at this point in the race.
Trump’s support is stalling among Republican voters, and his failure to close out his rivals speaks to his potential weakness in a general election. Tuesday’s results show the GOP frontrunner can be beaten soundly in places where the case against Trump is prosecuted in a sustained way -– and perhaps helped along when Trump himself plays into those arguments with his own behavior.
With a Trump ceiling coming in to focus, his path to a majority of convention delegates has never been narrower. Strikingly, more than a third of Republicans in Wisconsin exit polls say they’d be scared under a Trump presidency, with another two in 10 saying they’d be concerned. Trump was uncharacteristically silent Tuesday night, as if he had nothing good to say.
Cruz is by far the biggest beneficiary of the anti-Trump sentiments. Wisconsin delivered the kind of cross-demographic victory that, to date, only Trump has managed in an electorally significant state.
Cruz appears to have done that primarily by being someone not named Trump. That leaves him accumulating delegates at a pace that will leave as the main, though by no means the only, alternative to Trump at a contested convention.
Yet the main alternative to Trump is no great uniter, either. About a quarter of Wisconsin GOP voters said they would vote for Hillary Clinton or a third-party candidate if Trump wins the nomination; a similar portion said they’d do the same if Cruz is the nominee.
Trump’s Wisconsin setback doesn’t open the door to Cruz or anyone else to clinch the nomination before the convention. It makes a contested convention more likely than ever, and guarantees a fierce competition for votes and delegates through the end of voting June 7 –- and likely well beyond.
The voting terrain grows slightly more favorable for Trump from here. His native New York votes next, in two weeks, with the rest of April dominated by northeastern states. Cruz and John Kasich surely can’t rely on missteps derailing Trump as regularly as they did in the run-up to Wisconsin.
Yet for the Republican Party, a hard truth is emerging: at a moment where the frontrunner should be getting stronger, Trump is getting weaker. He may not be beaten in the end, but Trump is staggering into the final two months of voting.