Can Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin?
Wisconsin could be pivotal if Republicans are to win the White House in 2016, but Trump, the presumptive nominee, faces long odds in the last state he lost during the primary.
Republicans here have expressed mixed opinions about whether to support him. On Thursday, House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Janesville Republican who will lead the Republican National Convention in July, told CNN that he cannot currently support Trump.
Meanwhile, former Gov. Tommy Thompson said in an interview that he supports Trump.
“He’s the nominee and I support him — I support him enthusiastically,” Thompson said. “The alternative is terrible, and I don’t think this country can afford another four years of Obama. We need a change and we need a change bad. We better get behind Donald.”
The New York billionaire real estate mogul and reality TV celebrity is unpopular in the Badger State, far moreso than GOP nominee Mitt Romney was throughout 2012, according to the latest Marquette Law School polls, which were conducted before Wisconsin’s April 5 primary and before Trump became the presumptive nominee this week.
The percentage who viewed Romney unfavorably averaged 47 percent in 2012, whereas Trump’s average so far this year is 65 percent. Romney’s favorable rating also averaged about 13 points higher than Trump’s has so far.
Having a lower favorable rating and higher unfavorable rating than an opponent make it difficult, if not impossible, to win an election, as Romney found against Obama, whose favorable rating remained above 50 percent in all but one 2012 Marquette poll.
However, Democratic front-runner Clinton also has higher unfavorable ratings than Romney did — her average in three polls this year is 56 percent. The percentage who view her favorably, about 36 percent, is about the same as Romney’s throughout 2012, though higher than his was during the primary season.
Clinton’s lead over Trump in head-to-head polling is also on par with Obama’s victory over John McCain in 2008. In national polls, she leads Trump by about 6.5 points (Obama defeated McCain by seven points) and in Wisconsin she has led by about 10 points (Obama won Wisconsin by almost 14).
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders polls even better against Trump, although Clinton has nearly cut off his path to the nomination.
Marquette Law School Poll director Charles Franklin said that for Trump to win Wisconsin there will have to be a major shift in the race. But it’s difficult to gauge how things will play out as some of his low ratings could reflect the bitter primary fight, and Republicans will likely coalesce around their nominee after the convention in July, he said.
“It’s going to be very hard for Republicans who will not like Hillary Clinton at all to still maintain that they would rather stay out of the race,” Franklin said.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said the fact that more Republicans in Wisconsin view Trump unfavorably (51 percent) than favorably (36 percent) is significant and unusual.
If there is a path to the requisite 270 Electoral College votes for Trump, it is through the Midwest, Kondik said. But Clinton is the favorite in Wisconsin and Trump “the pretty big underdog,” Kondik said.
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Black Earth, said Trump faces a cultural obstacle in Wisconsin.
“There is a humble nature to people in Wisconsin,” Pocan said. “Donald Trump is the antithesis to that.”
Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki said Trump enters the general election with more challenges than a typical Republican candidate. Only one in five independents gave him a favorable rating in the latest Marquette poll, and three out of four women had an unfavorable view.
“Wisconsin remains the football that Charlie Brown is trying to kick, which Lucy pulls away from Republicans every four years,” Zepecki said.
Steve Grubbs, a Republican strategist with clients in several states including Wisconsin, said for the past year he underestimated Trump and Democrats could be on the verge of doing the same. He said the election is shaping up as “the status quo versus the guy who’s going to blow up the status quo.”
Grubbs said Trump will force Clinton into defending military and other aid to foreign countries, current immigration laws and an interventionist foreign policy.
“Those are all three issues that bring Wisconsin voters his way,” Grubbs said. “There’s a lot of peace voters in Wisconsin that are tired of war. Hillary has the track record of being the pro-war candidate.”
Democrats have won the past seven presidential elections in Wisconsin, though two of those wins (2000 and 2004) were by two-tenths of a percentage point and two came with help from a third-party challenger (1992 and 1996).
Republicans won in 1980 and 1984 when Ronald Reagan had crossover appeal among blue-collar Democrats. That dynamic could be in play again in Wisconsin, according to Gene Ulm, a national Republican pollster.
Trump “certainly is cutting a bigger path on more populist issues — certainly more populist than Hillary Clinton is,” Ulm said. “If that takes hold and he is successful, then states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are going to be much more competitive.”
Joe Heim, a UW-La Crosse political science professor, said Trump is the underdog given his performance in the primary and in the latest polls, but he doesn’t dismiss Trump as a viable candidate.
“If this is a change election, Trump could win,” Heim said, but added, “For Wisconsin, I put my money on Hillary. I think her agenda is going to work better for Wisconsin than the Republican agenda.”
State Journal reporter Mark Sommerhauser contributed to this report.