If Bernie Sanders Wins Wisconsin, It Could Help Him Confront The Narrative He's Been Facing All Along

The big-ticket state of Wisconsin will hold its primary elections on Tuesday, April 5, with 96 delegates at stake for the Democratic candidates. Sen. Hillary Clinton will try to at least maintain if not widen the delegate gap between herself and Sen. Bernie Sanders, and he'll be pushing back to narrow her lead. What would it mean if Sanders wins Wisconsin? I like to think about the potential significance of different states' primary results from a few different angles: their impact on delegate counts, whether a state gives us any insight concerning what to expect in upcoming contests, and how they might affect the momentum of campaigns.

First, the delegate counts. Going into Wisconsin, Clinton has a lead of 263 pledged delegates over Sanders, reported the Associated Press (she has 1,243 to his 980). Democratic delegates are awarded proportionally, meaning candidates receive roughly the percentage of a state's delegates as they do its popular vote. So anything close to a tie in the state wouldn't change the delegate gap between the candidates much at all.

There are only two recent polls looking into which Democratic candidate voters in Wisconsin support; Real Clear Politics averaged those to find Clinton with a lead of 1 percent over Sanders. If these polls are an indication of the primary's outcome — which we can't be sure they are — then the delegate math may not be affected much by Wisconsin's race. A big win for Sanders in Wisconsin, however, could do some damage to Clinton's lead. He'd have to win about two-thirds of the vote and delegates to narrow the gap to around 200. But any dent in the delegate gap would be welcomed by the senator.

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Next, let's consider what a win in Wisconsin might tell us about Sanders' prospects in upcoming contests. It's one of the last Midwestern states to hold its primary, so geographically it wouldn't tell us much. Racially, Wisconsin is similar to Minnesota, which Sanders won, but many of the state contests coming up with the most delegates at stake — New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and California — are more diverse than the mostly-white Wisconsin. Sanders showed on March 26 that he can be competitive against and even defeat Clinton in states with diverse populations by sweeping Hawaii, Alaska, and Washington. As far as Wisconsin goes, its demographics won't tell us too much about what to expect going forward.

Finally, there's the consideration of the impact of a Wisconsin win on Sanders' campaign momentum. Momentum is a tricky thing to talk about in terms of political campaigns; the narrative can risk obscuring the long view and putting undue emphasis on a single state and a single primary. However, it's still an important thing to consider, especially in a campaign like Sanders'. He's been confronting the narrative that he doesn't stand a chance, and that could weaken the morale of his would-be voters and volunteers, causing them to stay home instead of mobilize.

Sanders kicked off March with a rough Super Tuesday, followed by more losses than wins throughout the middle of the month. But he picked up a number of wins, and delegates, at the end of March from Idaho, Utah, Hawaii, Alaska, and Washington. That morale boost could be bumped up further by a win in Wisconsin, which may help him appear viable to undecided voters who may join his camp, so long as they believe he stands a chance. It could also mobilize his supporters to keep the faith and push hard going into the huge delegate states ahead. And those states are crucial for Sanders, since he's coming from behind entering April.

A win in Wisconsin would put a much-needed if small dent in Clinton's delegate lead. It won't give us much to forecast future races off, but it could continue the momentum Sanders picked up at the end of March, starting off April right for the campaign.