No matter how Donald Trump and his campaign spin it -- and they are spinning it -- Tuesday night was a bad one for his hopes of getting to the 1,237 delegates he needs to be the Republican presidential nominee. Ted Cruz walloped Trump in the Wisconsin primary; as of Wednesday morning, Trump is taking only three out of a possible 42 delegates from the Badger State. Not good! Sad!
A walk through the Wisconsin exit poll -- thank you, CNN! -- shows not only how complete Cruz's swamping of Trump was but also just how much opposition to Trump and the Trump message there was in the state. Cruz crushed Trump by 21 points among self-described conservatives. More than six in 10 Wisconsin Republican primary voters said illegal immigrants working in the United States should be offered some form of legal status. And, perhaps most damning for Trump, 58 percent of GOP primary-goers said they would be either "scared" (38 percent) or "concerned" (20 percent) if he were elected the next president. That's Republican primary voters!
Like I said, a bad night for Trump. But, the dark Wisconsin cloud did have one silver lining for the real estate mogul. And here it is:
A majority of Wisconsin Republican primary voters believe that if no one gets to the magic 1,237 number, the party should choose the candidate who won the most -- it's not clear whether that is calculated by raw votes or delegates -- rather than the perceived "best" candidate.
Not surprisingly, among the 55 percent of people who said the "primary winner" should be the nominee, they voted for Trump in Wisconsin by 17 points; those who said the party should choose the best candidate if no one got to 1,237 went overwhelmingly for Cruz, with Trump finishing a distant third.
That result from Wisconsin is broadly in keeping with other national polling data released on the question of what the party should do if no candidate gets the majority of delegates on the first ballot at the Republican National Convention. In a McClatchy-Marist poll released Tuesday, a majority (52 percent) of Republicans said the party should nominate Trump if he goes into the convention -- as he almost certainly will -- with the most delegates (even if he is short of 1,237). Four in 10 GOPers in that poll said the party should nominate someone else.
While neither the Wisconsin exit poll question nor the McClatchy-Marist numbers are a huge vote of confidence for Trump, they both speak to the fundamental interest the party regulars have in giving the presidential nomination to the candidate who, at the end of the primary and caucus process, looks like the winner -- whether or not that candidate crests the 1,237 plateau. Although neither poll question gets at this, I do think that the closer Trump is to 1,237 -- maybe anything above 1,150? -- the more inclined the convention delegates will be to throw their lot in, eventually, with him. If Trump ends up somewhere between 1,000 and 1,100, that argument gets more complicated.
What the numbers show more than anything is that the party is still willing to make Trump its nominee if he comes up short of 1,237. But my guess is that if he has more weeks like the one he had last week -- in which he looked like someone ill-equipped to be either the nominee or the president -- the numbers I cited above will turn against him. That's what makes the next 13 days between now and the New York primary so important for him. Trump has promised a turn toward policy and seriousness. Let's see if he can make it a convincing one.