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Wisconsin and the myth of political momentum

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Jim Young/Reuters

(Read caption) Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks at his Wisconsin primary night rally as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker looks on in Milwaukee April 5, 2016.

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Donald Trump suffered a sharp loss in Tuesday night’s Wisconsin GOP primary. Does that mean he’s also lost momentum in his overall effort to win the Republican presidential nomination?

Maybe. But probably not.

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“Oh, come off it,” you’re saying. “Trump got stuffed. Ted Cruz beat him by 15 points. That makes it less likely he’ll grab the party crown at the Cleveland convention.”

Well sure, he’d rather have won. Whether Mr. Trump gets the 1,237 delegates necessary for a first ballot victory will be a near-run thing. He wanted more Wisconsin delegates than the six or so he got.

But Wisconsin was a Trump defeat foretold. It’s long looked like a bad state for him for a number of reasons, from its relatively high levels of education to its active and organized state GOP apparatus. He’s trailed in polls there for months.

“Mr. Trump’s challenge in Wisconsin wasn’t momentum, it was demographics,” writes Nate Cohn, polling guru at The Upshot blog of The New York Times, in the wake of Tuesday’s results.

The word “momentum” is often misused in political narratives. It means the motion of something, and that motion’s increase or decrease. But if we suspected Trump’s loss was coming, is its arrival an actual surprise? Or is it simply the continuation of current trends?

Right now everybody’s excited about Trump’s Tuesday loss. The Washington Post called it a “pivot point” which may lead up, or may lead down. (Well, that’s useful.)

The same people will be excited all over again if, as currently seems likely, Trump wins the New York primary on April 19. Momentum restored! Pivot point redux.

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In reality, for Trump Wisconsin did not so much change the status quo as illustrate it. Throughout GOP primary and caucus season, the real estate billionaire has received about 37 percent of Republican votes. In Wisconsin, he got a bit less than that, at about 35 percent.

He may get as high as 50 percent in New York, if current polls are indicative. But that’s his home state. Some places he does better, some he does worse. Overall, the ceiling on his portion of the electorate seems to be somewhere around 40 percent.

That hasn’t changed much since January. Trump’s gained around 5 points in the national poll average as the number of candidates dropped from 12 to 3.

Meanwhile, Senator Cruz of Texas is gaining. His standing in the average of major national polls has about doubled since January, to 33 percent.

Whether this constitutes momentum on Cruz’s part is a whole other story. What it does mean is this: Neither of the two major competitors remaining seem likely to close out the other any time soon. (Sorry, John Kasich. Time’s about up.)

Trump has a core of committed supporters. Cruz is consolidating the anti-Trump vote. The demographic separation is clear.

Cruz has plenty of money. Trump says he has plenty of money and in any case has ample access to free media.

Put in that context the GOP race seems fairly static. That could change – maybe Cruz wins New York, and it’s all over. But at the moment that seems unlikely. The most likely outcome is a struggle to the end, June 7, at least if not the convention in July, for the marginal gains and losses that will either provide Trump the necessary 1,237 delegates, or leave him short.

The billionaire needs to corral about 63 percent of the remaining delegates to reach that goal, according to Washington Post figures. That could be tough.