Voter anger may backfire on Trump in Wisconsin

Protesters hold signs on the street in Appleton, Wis., March 30, 2016, where Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is scheduled to appear for a rally.
Nam Y. Huh | AP
Protesters hold signs on the street in Appleton, Wis., March 30, 2016, where Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is scheduled to appear for a rally.

Donald Trump supporters are mad as hell about jobs, wages and the direction of the U.S. economy.

But that anger may not be enough let him clinch Wisconsin's GOP primary on Tuesday.

The billionaire front-runner faces one of his biggest tests yet, as GOP leaders in the Badger State have aligned against him. So far, his march toward the GOP presidential nomination has been propelled largely by voters discontent with slow wage growth, limited job prospects and the lackluster U.S. economy.

Though Wisconsin's jobless rate has fallen to 4.6 percent, comfortably below the national average, the state is still feeling the lingering effects of the Great Recession, an issue that has come to dominate the 2016 presidential campaign.

"Really, 2015 was probably the first year since 2008 that we felt good that it actually started to feel better," said economist Logan Kelly, director of Center for Economic Research at the University of Wisconsin.

But that recovery has been very uneven across Wisconsin, said Logan. Much of the fastest growth has come in counties in Wisconsin's south and east. In Dane County, home of Madison, the state's second-largest city, strong job growth has pushed the jobless rate down to 3.5 percent.

On the other hand, counties in Wisconsin's rural northwest are still struggling with jobless rates approaching 10 percent, levels not seen nationally since the depths of the recession.

Wisconsin's patchwork recovery will have a major impact on the delegate math as Trump and rivals Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Gov. John Kasich vie for votes.

Unlike some states, Wisconsin's GOP primary rules apportion 24 of its 42 delegates from each of its eight congressional districts. (The winner of the statewide tally picks up the remaining 18 delegates.)

Those 42 delegates could prove crucial to Trump's success, in part, because they are more tightly committed at the national convention in Cleveland than delegates from some other states.

Going into Wisconsin, Trump has a 281 delegate lead over Cruz, 749 to 468; Kasich is trailing far behind at 143, according to NBC News. That means Trump has to win 54 percent of the remaining GOP delegates to get the 1,237 votes needed to win the nomination. (Cruz needs to win 85 percent of remaining delegates, according to NBC News.)

Much of Trump's support has come from voters responding to his appeal to bring back lost manufacturing jobs. But it remains to be seen whether that message wins him support in Wisconsin. Though manufacturing employment statewide is still below prerecession levels, the sector has steadily recovered since 2010.

With just days left before the Wisconsin vote, Trump was behind Cruz in most polls. But he predicted a win would make his campaign unstoppable.

"If we win Wisconsin, it's pretty much over," he told supporters at a rally in Janesville on Saturday.

A loss for Trump in Wisconsin, on the other hand, would give an ongoing "stop-Trump" effort by party leaders more time to gather strength before the next GOP primary, in Trump's home state of New York, on April 19.

"I think the whole country is looking to Wisconsin right now to make a choice in this race, and I think the choice Wisconsin makes is going to have repercussions for a long time to come," Cruz said Thursday in an interview with Milwaukee radio station WTMJ.

The Trump campaign has been hit with a series of setbacks that could further hurt his chances on Tuesday. Corey Lewandowski, Trump's campaign manager, was charged with battery last week for an altercation with a reporter. After proposing that women should be punished for getting abortions, Trump was forced to back track a comment that drew fire from both sides of the abortion debate.

Trump's recent interviews with several of Wisconsin's conservative talk radio hosts did not go well. On Tuesday, two-term Republican Gov. Scott Walker endorsed Cruz.

Trump's competitive campaign style may also be put to the test Tuesday.

There's a reason Wisconsin is often considered a "battleground" state. Much like its patchwork economy, the state is politically divided between conservatives and progressives.

The divide stems from a broad diversity of income, education, and rural and urban populations

"You can't really talk about the average Wisconsonite," said Logan. "Half of us are blue and half are red, and we oscillate back and forth. We're hardly ever purple."

Despite Trump's appeal to voters who feel they've been left behind by an economy that has given them limited job prospects, weak job markets have generally favored Democrats in past general elections. A CNBC analysis of county-level voting and jobless data shows that, in the past six presidential elections, counties with higher levels of unemployment has generally favored Democratic candidates.

Though the state has voted for Democrats in the past six presidential elections, the popular vote was a virtual tie in 2000 and 2004. President Barack Obama handily won the state in 2008 and 2012, but Wisconsin is home to national GOP leaders, including Walker, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.

But those "establishment" Republicans have been among Trump's loudest critics. That means Trump can't count on support from the state's rank and file Republicans, some of whom see his brash rhetoric as a liability in the general election.

"He's rude. He's arrogant. He's a loose cannon. He's insulting to women," GOP voter Linda Ruddy, a 48-year-old dental hygienist from Oshkosh, told The Associated Press.