Magazine | May 9, 2016, Issue

‘Never Trump’ after Wisconsin

(Roman Genn)
The businessman’s opponents won an important, but not a decisive, victory.

Fifteen days before Wisconsin’s April 5 primary, the Club for Growth polled Republican voters in the state. Ted Cruz led Donald Trump by five points, 36 to 31 percent. John Kasich was running third at 21 percent. When the results came in on Election Day, Cruz had trounced Trump by a 13-point margin, and Kasich had taken home just 14 percent of the vote. Voters had moved significantly in just two weeks, and Wisconsin marked the first clear win for the forces that have on Twitter dubbed themselves “#NeverTrump.”

It happened at a critical juncture, when a Trump victory would have significantly increased the businessman’s odds of amassing the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination before the Republican National Convention convenes in Cleveland this summer. Instead, Cruz made a contested convention more likely.

Many of Trump’s Republican foes have argued for months that defeating him would require an all-hands-on-deck effort: opposition from elected officials, conservative media, and top-dollar donors. While there has been a lot of buzz about an anti-Trump movement, its components have rarely worked in tandem. The literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote in 1950 that conservatism was less a body of ideas than a series of “irritable mental gestures”; its expression in the form of a movement to destroy Trump and save itself has been similarly disjointed.

In Wisconsin, the stars aligned. Outside groups funded by Republican donors poured millions of dollars into ads attacking Trump. Local talk-radio hosts hammered him relentlessly. And the state’s popular governor, Scott Walker, emerged from self-imposed hibernation to champion Cruz over Trump.

Trump’s loss was a galvanizing moment for the forces aligned against him. So it makes sense that his defeat in Wisconsin has become the subject of intense interest for his foes, who are now looking to pull off a repeat in Indiana.

“It’s like the Spanish Civil War,” says Wisconsin-based talk-radio host Charlie Sykes, who opposes Trump’s candidacy and conducted a bruising interview with him a week before the primary. “Both sides are trying out their military tactics, and whatever happens to have worked or not worked will be applied in other war zones.”

A Trump loss in Indiana on May 3, with 57 delegates at stake, would make a contested convention virtually inevitable. Reaching that point would be a decisive victory for Trump’s opponents and would knock the businessman back on his heels. His campaign has been heavy on media and rallies but light on the infrastructure necessary to wrangle delegates on the convention floor, so he would arrive in Cleveland at a distinct disadvantage — for the first time in months, Donald Trump would be the underdog.

But the Trump vote has proven relatively inelastic. In some states, such as Wisconsin, it sits in the mid 30s. If that’s the case, he’s beatable, according to a top Republican operative, because enough Kasich voters can be convinced to hold their noses and vote for Cruz to cobble together a coalition large enough to defeat Trump. But the Kasich contingent can’t be so big that the Ohio governor’s supporters see no reason to abandon him, and in many northeastern states Kasich has run even with Cruz. Defeating Trump has been far more difficult in states — New York, Florida, Massachusetts, Arizona — where his support hovers in the mid 40s. It will stay that way, at least so long as this remains a three-man race.

The Club for Growth’s early polling in Wisconsin showed that nearly a third of Kasich supporters were open to backing Cruz in order to stop Trump. So the group spent a million dollars broadcasting a television spot called “Math,” which urged them to do just that. Bar graphs danced on the screen, demonstrating visually how the Cruz and Kasich vote together could defeat Trump but keeping them divided would hand Trump the win.

The ad worked: Kasich’s numbers, as measured in the Club’s poll, fell seven points by Election Day; Cruz’s vote shot up twelve, to 48 percent from 36.

Trump’s voters aren’t all that persuadable. “All of the ads that have called Trump too liberal, or said he hates women, or that he ripped people off at Trump U, they’re all good messages,” says a top GOP strategist. “But they aren’t moving voters away from Trump. The Kasich vote is far softer and easier to move around.” That certainly proved true in Wisconsin.

That said, direct attacks on Trump can convince conservatives he’s enough of a menace that they should back the candidate likeliest to defeat him — even if that candidate wasn’t their first choice. Our Principles PAC, the super PAC partly funded by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts and his wife, Marlene, put up a seven-figure sum to air a television ad featuring a series of actresses reading some of Trump’s most eye-popping statements about women. (“You know, it really doesn’t matter what they write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of a**.”)

“We were really looking to hit him in a way that would kind of feel like a kick in the gut,” says Katie Packer, the group’s executive director. Produced by Larry McCarthy, who created the famed Willie Horton ad that helped sink Michael Dukakis in 1988, the spot garnered a million views on YouTube within the first 48 hours.

And then, Trump started playing into the caricature. On March 24, he retweeted a now infamous tweet featuring an unflattering snapshot of Cruz’s wife, Heidi, next to a glamorous professional shot of his own wife, Melania, a former model. “The images are worth a thousand words,” read the caption with the photos. Trump had threatened to “spill the beans” on Mrs. Cruz the previous day.

From there, conservative talk radio and elected officials helped turn the screw.

While many nationally syndicated conservative talk-radio hosts have been tacit Trump allies, Wisconsin was a different story. “How do we get to April of 2016 and nobody got in his face before?” Sykes asked before the primary.

A few days earlier, Sykes, the king of the medium in the state, had been one of the first to do just that: “I know you realize that here in Wisconsin we value things like civility, decency, and actual conservative principles, so let’s possibly make some news,” Sykes said when Trump appeared on his show a week before the primary. He challenged Trump to declare the wives of the candidates off-limits and to apologize for implicitly mocking Heidi Cruz’s appearance. Trump rebuffed him, arguing, essentially, that Cruz had started it. “I expect that from a twelve-year-old bully on the playground,” Sykes told him on air. “Not somebody who wants to hold the office held by Abraham Lincoln.”

The media reactions came in swiftly. The conservative website RedState: “Charlie Sykes Just Destroyed Donald Trump.” The New York Times: “Wisconsin Radio Host’s Combative Interview Surprises Donald Trump.” Mashable: “Donald Trump Meets His Match in Wisconsin Radio Interview.”

The following day, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker joined Sykes’s show to announce that he was endorsing Ted Cruz, introducing another element into the combustible mix and offering a test case for what could happen if a popular conservative governor got off the sidelines.

Walker had bowed out of the presidential race in September, urging marginal candidates to join him so that the party could focus its resources on defeating Trump, and then he went quiet. When the race hit Wisconsin, though, he not only hit back against Trump’s juvenile barbs but went out of his way to help the Texas senator, appearing alongside him at rallies and cutting television ads on his behalf.

This sort of support for Cruz and opposition to Trump has been notably lacking in other important contests. In Iowa, Governor Terry Branstad set aside his custom of staying out of presidential politics and urged his constituents to stop Cruz; in Florida, Governor Rick Scott was friendly to Trump for weeks and endorsed him the day after he won the state’s primary; and in Arizona, the state’s former governor, Jan Brewer, endorsed Trump while its current chief executive, Doug Ducey, stayed on the sidelines.

Trump’s foes are cautiously optimistic about their chances in Indiana. Trump has fared poorly in the Midwest, where his bluster is ill suited to people for whom courtesy and manners are a cultural touchstone. “We are conservative politically, philosophically, and temperamentally. And Trump’s New York values and brash campaign style will not play well here, in my humble opinion,” says Curt Smith, the president of the Indiana Family Institute, who has endorsed Cruz.

Trump also performs best among people with low educational attainment: There’s a high correlation between support for Trump and lack of high-school diplomas. That’s good news for Cruz: Statewide, Indiana, like Wisconsin, boasts above-average high-school-graduation rates, though in other ways the educational attainment of Indiana voters suggests they will be more favorable to Trump.

Trump struggled in Wisconsin’s Republican strongholds, the suburban areas that happen to be some of the most highly educated counties in the state. Ninety-five percent of adults in suburban Milwaukee’s Waukesha County, for example, hold high-school diplomas or the equivalent degree, compared with 88 percent of the U.S. population at large, while 41 percent graduated from college, compared with the 33 percent national average. Cruz carried Waukesha County with 61 percent of the vote, compared with 22 percent for Trump.

In Indiana, the state’s reddest counties look similar to Waukesha County, though they’re less educated across the board. As of 2010, in central Indiana’s Hamilton County, which the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman compares to Wisconsin’s Waukesha, 96 percent of adults had completed high school and nearly 54 percent had bachelor’s degrees. The surrounding counties, though — some of Indiana’s most conservative, including Boone, Hendricks, Johnson, and Shelby — boast above-average shares of adults with high-school diplomas but below-average shares of adults with college degrees.

The other open question — the elephant in the room — is whether Indiana’s conservative governor, Mike Pence, will influence the race. Trump couldn’t stop himself from attacking Walker in front of the very people who had elected Walker three times in four years, and he hurt himself in the process. Could Pence, who was sent to Congress six times by Hoosiers and elected to the governorship in 2012, help Cruz and hurt Trump?

Like Walker, Pence is ideologically, if not temperamentally, sympathetic to Cruz. As a congressman, he was a proto-tea-partier, one of the few Republicans who spent the Bush years lambasting their party for growing government. He made a stink in the House and voted against several of Bush’s signature domestic achievements — from Medicare Part D to No Child Left Behind.

But Pence is up for reelection this year, and early polls show that he has a competitive race on his hands. He hurt himself badly a year ago when he bungled public appearances connected with the passage of a state religious-freedom bill. Pence wasn’t prepared for the national onslaught that many Republican governors have since faced. He meekly signed the bill in private and has rarely poked his head up since.

For Pence, dipping his toe into the waters of a tumultuous Republican primary may appear to have no political upside. But he would become a hero to the anti-Trump forces were he to throw political caution to the wind and strongly back Cruz.

Trump’s critics, a motley crew, now believe that Republicans will see a contested convention in July. They’re less certain how far below a majority of the delegates they can keep Trump before he touches down in Cleveland, or whether Cruz can clinch the nomination swiftly thereafter on a second ballot.

It’s too soon to know, but, thanks to Wisconsin, #NeverTrump finally has a playbook.

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