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Polls Show Wisconsin Voters To Buck Trends, Vote For Sanders, Cruz


If recent history is any guide, Wisconsin primary voters should stand behind the presidential front-runners today. The state typically votes for the leading candidates on both sides. But this year, both front-runners - Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton - are polling second in Wisconsin. Let's bring in an expert on Wisconsin politics to shed some light on this. Barry Burden is professor of political science and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Good morning.

BARRY BURDEN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: A little perspective first, if you will. What is it about your state that leaves the stakes so high.

BURDEN: Well, I think part of it is the timing - where Wisconsin falls in the schedule of primaries and caucuses this year. We are at about a midpoint between the first half of the season and the second half of the season. And there are no other primaries or caucuses happening the same day. And so all of the national focus of the candidates and the parties has been on Wisconsin for the last week or so.

MONTAGNE: Wisconsin has long vote for the presidential front-runner, as I've just said. Why is that not likely to happen today?

BURDEN: Well, there are some forces at work that are pushing against both the front-runners on the Republican side and the Democratic side. Bernie Sanders has a lot of strength in Wisconsin. It's an electorate that is set up to favor him. It's a whiter electorate than in a lot of states where the Democrats have been competing. It's also an open primary, and that helps to bring in some independent voters who are more on his side. And then there's a fairly strong base of students in the state - college students in particular in Madison - who are enthusiastic about him. All of that, I think, sets him up for a potential to upset Clinton. On the Republican side, the establishment has essentially coalesced around Ted Cruz and is making it very difficult for Trump to make inroads here.

MONTAGNE: Well, Trump, of course, has been popular in many other primaries, and won other primaries. Let's talk about Ted Cruz. Why has he become a favorite there? I know that he's been endorsed by your governor, Scott Walker.

BURDEN: He has. And Donald Trump has done nothing to ingratiate himself with the Republican base of the state. He arrived in the state about a week ago to begin campaigning. His first event was in Janesville. That's the hometown of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. He then proceeded to criticize both Scott Walker and Paul Ryan, both of whom are very popular figures among Republican voters in the state. He's also had difficulty in interviews with conservative talk radio hosts earlier this week. And so just a variety of things are working against him. There's really very little of the Republican establishment on his side.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's talk, then, about Hillary Clinton. What is it about her campaign that has allowed her to slip behind Bernie Sanders?

BURDEN: Well, as I say, I think there's some demographic factors that are working to Sanders' advantage here. He also has the luxury of not having to do any fundraising. His money is all raised on the Internet somewhat automatically, without a lot of effort from him. And that frees him up to spend all of his time, essentially, campaigning in the state. He's barely left the borders of Wisconsin over the last 10 days. In contrast, Hillary Clinton has done some events in the state and run some advertising, but she's also traveled to fundraisers on the East Coast. And she's looking ahead to New York, Pennsylvania and some other states that are down the road.

MONTAGNE: So you're saying Hillary Clinton hasn't put as much energy into the state as has Bernie Sanders. But also an interesting thing about Wisconsin is unions have in the past been a potent political force for Democratic candidates. To what extent do unions affect this race? One might think they'd go for either of these two Democratic candidates.

BURDEN: Yes, it's true that union memberships and union funds have declined over the last few years in Wisconsin due to changes in law here. But they're still a force, particularly in Democratic primaries. A lot of the leadership of the unions has endorsed Hillary Clinton, but a lot of the rank and file has really resonated with the Sanders message about the minimum wage, about inequality, campaign finance, trying to reverse the trade patterns in this country. And I think the average union member on the ground just finds the Sanders messages more appealing.

MONTAGNE: Even though unemployment generally - not in the rural areas, but certainly in the suburban and urban areas - is very low.

BURDEN: It is. It's a little bit of a pattern we've seen nationwide with the unemployment rate dropping, but that being partly a result of people leaving the workforce. The pattern is very uneven across Wisconsin. There are places like Dane County, which is where the capital of Madison is, the unemployment rate is very low and incomes are quite high, and that's strong support for Sanders. But then there are places - rural communities - where the unemployment rate's a bit higher, the electorate's a little bit older, a little less educated, and those voters are probably leaning more towards Hillary Clinton.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for talking to us about the primaries today. They're in your state of Wisconsin.

BURDEN: It was great being with you.

MONTAGNE: Barry Burden is director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.