Ted Cruz couldn’t have had a better primary night than he did in Wisconsin on Tuesday, when he won a decisive double-digit victory over Donald Trump. Some pundits are already proclaiming this as the pivot of the election, the moment Trump starts a long slide. This is the “end” of Trump, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne proclaimed on Twitter.
Yet, as so often in the past, the press is being premature in its obituaries for Trump’s political career. The astonishing fact of the night is that even though Cruz won decisively, Trump still has roughly a third of the Republican Party behind him. The intense and undying loyalty of the Trump base is the real story, because it will be enough to ensure that Trump will win a plurality of the delegates and be in a strong position to argue at a contested convention that he should be the nominee.
Wisconsin was unusually friendly ground for Cruz. The demographics of the Republicans in the state skew towards college-educated, suburban, well-to-do evangelical Christians who are in stable relationships. The state is also very white. Only 6 percent of the population is African-American (Trump tends to do well in areas that are more racially diverse, where the white population is more receptive to the idea that they are losing ground). Finally, the conservative wing of the Republican Party is very strong in Wisconsin and was solidly behind the Texas senator. Cruz won’t enjoy such hospitable terrain in the remaining states, which will have many more voters who have less than a high school education, are not regular church-goers, are more likely to be Catholics and white ethnics from South and central Europe (as opposed to the people of Northern European ancestry in Wisconsin), and more likely to describe themselves as “moderates.” Such voters are closer to Trump’s base than Cruz’s.
The astonishing fact of the night is that Trump’s base hasn’t deserted him, despite all the shenanigans and missteps of the last few weeks. It’s worth recalling that by any normal political measure, Trump should be in freefall: He offended all sides on the explosive issue of abortion by constantly zig-zagging, his campaign manager was arrested for allegedly manhandling a reporter, and he frightened much of the world by suggesting a neo-isolationist foreign policy that would see the United States welcoming nuclear proliferation.
Far from being in decline, Trump’s base is rock-solid. A third of the party is still behind him in Wisconsin, which could easily translate to 40 percent or more support in friendlier states like New York or California. Despite a very bad night, Trump is still on the path to willing a plurality, and possibly even a majority, of the delegates. And if it came to a contested convention, Trump would be able to make a powerful case that he should be the nominee based not just on having the most delegates but also the most intense followers, whom the Republicans would need to win in the general election November.
“I have the most loyal people,” Trump famously chortled in an Iowa rally. “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
Trump’s remarks are shocking, but probably true. His core supporters have the intense devotion usually seen only in a cult or a street gang. As the lyrics in West Side Story told us:
When you’re a Jet,
You’re a Jet all the way
From your first cigarette
To your last dyin’ day.
To modify it for our current moment, we could say:
When you’re a Trumpkin,
You’re a Trumpkin all the way
Polarizing politicians like Trump often produce supporters who have an undying team spirit, as well as opponents who are unwavering in hostility. The late Rob Ford, during his contentious term as mayor of Toronto from 2010 to 2014, was a similar figure. In 2010, Doug Ford, brother of the controversial politician, made a comment that prefigured Trump’s Fifth Avenue shooting claim: “Rob could commit murder on the steps of City Hall and they would still vote for him.”
Doug Ford was right. Nothing his brother did—not consorting with gangsters, not smoking crack, not repeatedly drinking and driving, not making countless lurid racist and sexist comments—shook the loyalty of the Ford base, roughly one third of Toronto.
The loyalty of Fordites and Trumpkins might seem bizarre, but might be understood as being based on precisely the fact that the candidate is so unique and irreplaceable. If you like Trump’s core message of xenophobic nationalism, then you’d be hard pressed to give up on him for his gaffes and missteps since no one else is likely to deliver the goods in the way Trump can. For the crucial third of Republican voters he has behind him, everything Trump does just washes off his back. They have found their man and will stick to him until the end.