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After Wisconsin, Demographics Suggest Rougher Terrain For Sanders, Cruz

Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pumps his fist during a campaign rally in Laramie, Wyo., Tuesday.
Brennan Linsley
Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pumps his fist during a campaign rally in Laramie, Wyo., Tuesday.

Donald Trump lost Wisconsin on Tuesday night by double digits (48 percent for Cruz, compared to 35 percent for Trump). By most accounts, it was a bad night for the business-mogul-turned-reality-show-host-turned-politician, who leads the current race for the GOP nomination.

But by another measure — demographics — maybe it wasn't that surprising.

Nate Cohn at The New York Times' Upshot makes the case that he never expected Trump to get more than 35 percent of the vote, and Trump performed exactly on the mark.

In fact, despite all the focus on Trump's provocative abortion comments, exit polls show Trump did no worse among women than men.

Campaign rhetoric and ground game may help, but maybe demographics really are destiny?

Many Wisconsin Republicans live in the highly educated, wealthy suburbs outside Milwaukee (Waukesha, Ozuakee and Washington counties), kind of akin to the Northern Virginia Rubio Republicans and a host of other suburban collar counties. Those areas were never thought to be demographically friendly Trump terrain.

For much of this campaign, Trump's trump card, so to speak, has been white, working-class voters. (The one exception to those demographic expectations was that Cruz actually outperformed Trump among non-college voters in Wisconsin, too.)

The other element at play could be regional demographics. Trump has not performed well in the Midwest. He lost Ohio and the caucuses in Kansas, Minnesota and Iowa — and barely edged out a win in Missouri.

Perhaps, Trump's brash rhetoric doesn't resonate with Midwestern manners.

One interesting takeaway that might suggest his tough talk isn't in line with some GOP voters comes from the Wisconsin exit polls, which show that despite the hard-line immigration ideas from both Cruz and Trump, about 60 percent of Republican primary voters in Wisconsin say they support a pathway to legalization for people who've come into the country illegally.

The real story isn't that Trump lost Wisconsin. It's that Cruz did better than expected. He managed to push Ohio Gov. John Kasich out of the way and coalesce the anti-Trump vote around him.

But, the next contest is on Trump's home turf — New York, and those demographics favor Trump.

What About The Democrats?

On the left, demographics are — and have been — equally predictive, if not more so.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders won Wisconsin resoundingly, beating Hillary Clinton by more than 13 points. He has won neighboring states with similarly progressive politics — Michigan and Minnesota.

And the makeup of the Wisconsin electorate was never in Clinton's favor. Eighty-three percent of Democratic voters in Wisconsin are white. Clinton performs far better in Southern states with large African-American and Latino populations.

She also has an edge in urban hubs. In fact, in the Wisconsin primary, the only county she won was Milwaukee County. Across the country, Sanders' strength has come from white voters, young voters and independents (and many of the upcoming contests are closed, meaning only Democrats can vote).

Wisconsin was no exception. Exit polls show Sanders won the white vote by about 20 points. But there is one demographic question mark from Wisconsin — women. Throughout this campaign, Clinton has relied on women as a safety net. Exit poll data suggest she's won a majority of women in state after state — even in places like Michigan, where she lost the overall vote to Sanders. In Wisconsin, though, Sanders and Clinton broke even.

So maybe demographics aren't always destiny, but they've been a pretty solid predictor in this campaign.

And if that's the case, that could mean a harder path ahead for Sanders. After what is likely to be a win for Sanders in the Wyoming caucuses Saturday, take a look at the two biggest battles:

-- New York on April 19, where more than 40 percent of residents are black, Asian or Latino.

-- Then, it's on to Pennsylvania, a state where more than a third of Democratic primary voters in 2008 were over the age of 60.

And that doesn't include New Jersey and Maryland, which also have significant nonwhite populations. So while the current momentum is with Sanders, the demographics in some important places on the road ahead seem to favor Clinton.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.