Only one primary yesterday (Tuesday in America), and not even one of the biggest states, but Wisconsin certainly looks to have been a milestone of sorts.
The margins of victory were curiously similar: on the Republican side, Ted Cruz beat Donald Trump by 13.2 percentage points, 48.3% to 35.1% (John Kasich was well back with 14.1%). And for the Democrats, Bernie Sanders had a 13.3 point margin over Hillary Clinton, 56.5% to 43.2%.
But early in the count things looked quite different: the urban Milwaukee precincts mostly came in first, and they favored both Cruz and Clinton. So while Sanders’s winning margin started out at about eight points, Cruz early in the count was almost 20 points ahead. They converged as counting progressed, and Trump and Sanders did better out of the state’s northern and western areas.
That means that for once, the timing was in Cruz’s favor – by the time votes came in from the more Trump-leaning areas, most of eastern America had gone to bed. So the media narrative will be more anti-Trump than the numbers really warrant.
Even so, this is clearly a poor result for Trump. On its own it could easily be brushed off, but added to the last week of mishaps and an apparent stiffening of backbone among the Republican establishment, it spells trouble for his candidacy. Betting odds now give him only an even-money chance at the nomination, and less than one chance in eight of becoming president – the lowest that number has been since before New Hampshire.
On the Democrat side, by contrast, nothing much has changed. Sanders exceeded expectations – the polls had given him a single-digit lead – but probably not by enough to really shake up the race. Nate Silver had calculated beforehand that he would need to win by 16 points to be on track for a majority of pledged delegates. He didn’t manage that, but it was impressively close.
The decline of Trump, however, is bad news for Sanders. Faced with Trump as the likely opponent, Democrat voters might reasonably think their party is unbeatable in November and therefore they can indulge themselves in choosing a candidate.
But if the Republicans can secure themselves a more mainstream option, be it Cruz or Kasich or Paul Ryan, that sort of indulgence will start to seem positively dangerous. Electability will become the salient point, and Sanders will find it harder to compete on those terms.
All eyes are now on New York, which votes on 19 April. A clear win there by Clinton would probably put her out of danger, while another bad result for Trump would blow the Republican race wide open.