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Wisconsin fight crucial as the establishment anti-Trump campaign ramps up

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Wisconsin could prove to be a turning point for the Republican establishment as it fights to prevent the nomination of Donald Trump as the party’s candidate in November, one leading political analyst closely following the race believes.

With turn out expected to be the highest in 30 to 40 years, this eagerly anticipated race involves some uniquely Wisconsin traits, including a full third of the electorate declaring itself independent in what is an entirely open primary.

The state, which goes to the polls April 5, is where the Republican party is making a stand, a standalone primary where the focus is entirely on beating up on Trump,  Professor Barry Burden, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Wednesday.

All the signs, and the numbers, suggests that Trump is in a difficult position, and will lose the overall state vote, though he may pick up a handful of delegates in what is a “winner takes some” primary election. But that’s not a certainty.

Of the 42 delegates up for the taking, 18 go to the state-wide poll topper, while the winner takes all three in each of the eight congressional districts.

According to the latest poll, published Wednesday by Marquette University, the gold standard of pollsters in the state, Cruz leads Trump by 10 points, 40 to 30 percent.

Cruz, and to some extent John Kasich, are both polling strongly in the south and east of the state, the areas with the highest populations, and where primaries, and general elections, are historically won in Wisconsin.

Burden, the Madison university’s professor of political science and director of its Elections Research Center, said Gov. Scott Walker’s endorsement of Cruz is important, but more because it likely will help him rack up more votes at the expense of Kasich.

“If he had endorsed Kasich, it would have shaken up the race,” said Burden, “but that’s not what happened.”

“(The endorsement) really will matter. It gives some credibility to Cruz, and gives the Walker organization to Cruz.”

It is the first real primary election test after Republican establishment figures began to move, often reluctantly, into the Cruz camp. And, therefore, a potentially significant turning point, said Burden.

The Fox River corridor running from Green Bay to the Milwaukee suburbs is where Walker, whose arguably gold-plated conservative Republican record was criticized by Trump Tuesday, has the greatest support. Walker is also still hugely popular among Republicans across the state, with an 85 per cent approval rating.

Trump is deeply unpopular among the suburban electorate in Wisconsin, said Burden. He appears to be garnering most support in the more rural, and much more thinly populated, north and north west of the state.

But there are very large caveats when it comes to predicting the outcome of this race, particularly as the turn out is predicted to be the highest in decades.

Trump has benefited from increased turn out in races across the country, often because the spike in numbers is made up in large part by his base, those historically less committed to politics, and tending to be blue collar, white, and working class.

On the other hand, Trump does better among voters who decided a long time ago to back him, and many voters are likely deciding in these final days which way to swing, said Burden.

In addition, Wisconsin has a different dynamic than in other states, that is far fewer of the working class, ex-urban voters Trump has been attracting, Burden argues.

There are other particularly Wisconsin wrinkles in the political process, including the third of voters who are independent.

And they are voting in an entirely open primary system, that is voters receive one sheet with both the Republican and Democratic candidates, and then can cast a ballot for either.

It is not clear how those will break, never mind by candidate, but by party.

"If we knew how they are going to break, we would know the results of the election," said Mordecai Lee, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and a former long serving member of the Wisconsin State Legislature. 

Trump did receive support from one senior politician in the state, Sen. Ron Johnson.

Sen. Johnson, who won the seat during the 2010 tea party sweep but is facing a tough fall re-election fight against former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, told CNN he believes Trump would benefit down ticket Republicans in a general election in Wisconsin.

Johnson said this is particularly true in the north of the state, and rural areas, the senator’s strongholds.

"Stump with Trump?" he said when asked if he'd appear on the campaign trail alongside the Republican front-runner. "Just because it rhymes: It'd be the Ronald (and) the Donald."

Johnson said, “Certainly as I travel the state extensively, I hear a lot of support because what Donald Trump is saying resonates with an awful lot of people when it comes to the incompetence of Washington, D.C."

His spokesman Brian Reisinger said Thursday Johnson has made clear he is not endorsing any candidate. "Ron has repeatedly said he'll support the Republican nominee, while noting that he is praying for one with integrity, intelligence, ideas, and courage who can lead our nation -- not divide it," Reisinger said.