A new poll published Thursday puts Bernie Sanders six points ahead of Hillary Clinton in the Wisconsin Democratic primary, underscoring predictions the Vermont senator can win a significant victory in Tuesday’s poll.
But signs the state might move to the Sanders column have been apparent for weeks, even as Clinton retained a lead in state-wide polls. It dropped from a nine-point margin late last year to just two at the end of February.
Wisconsin’s unique political processes, and electorate, were reasons for giving Sanders confidence he could carve out a win.
It’s an entirely open primary; Wisconsin has a large number of independent voters, many of them progressive; and poll watchers are predicting a potential “Noah’s flood” of a turnout.
Mordecai Lee, a political science professor at University of Madison-Wisconsin, was reluctant to predict a winner in the Democratic race, largely because of all those independents.
“There is roughly one third who do not identify with either party,” said Lee, a longtime former member of the Wisconsin state legislature.
“You got a whole chunk in an open primary. And there could be a Noah’s flood of a turnout because of the interest and enthusiasm for the candidates.”
He said if someone could predict how that third might break, they would “know the results of the election.”
But Lee does believe these Wisconsin primaries are hugely important, in a state that often is the “bridesmaid in elections.”
If Sanders and Cruz win big, the results will turn “both races into real races,” he predicted.
Sanders was 49 percent to Clinton's 43 percent in the Public Policy Polling poll published Thursday. An earlier poll, published Wednesday by Marquette University, put him four points ahead.
The open primary rules mean a voter gets a single sheet with both Republican and Democratic candidates and can make the decision there and then which of the party primaries to vote in.
Wisconsin is the state where the Sanders campaign really kicked off in July last year, with a 10,000-strong rally in the college city of Madison, the state capital but also a progressive stronghold.
Dane County, with Madison at its center, where Sanders is expected to perform well, is the second-most populous in the state, after Milwaukee.
And the results in neighboring Illinois two weeks ago reveal a great deal about the breakdown of the two candidates’ support.
The pair ended the race in a dead heat, this despite Clinton handsomely winning by eight points in by far the most populous county, Cook. Sanders won most of the other counties.
In Wisconsin, Clinton cannot count on the huge margins she is posting with minority populations, particularly blacks. Milwaukee, and the 4th Congressional District, will give her big majorities, but it is not clear where else she can win.
The way the delegate allocation works in Wisconsin means both candidates will get a share.
Of the 86 in play, 29 go to the statewide winner, while the remaining 57 are awarded via the eight congressional districts. They are awarded proportionally to candidates that poll above a 15-percent threshold.
Both candidates campaigned in New York on Thursday. Although Clinton is planning to return to Wisconsin Saturday, she has spent far less time in the state than Sanders.
And Clinton is preparing to spend far more money in New York than she originally budgeted, people close to the campaign told CNN.
New York appears now to be the battleground state, more than Wisconsin. She leads Brooklyn-native Sanders by 12 points in the state, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday.