For the past several months, social media and some conservative firebrands salivated over the prospect of the primary in Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional district. Predictions were made of an ignominious Paul Ryan defeat, even after polling emerged showing challenger Paul Nehlen barely registering among voters in the district. The polls are rigged, came the response, and Nehlen’s supporters predicted a huge repudiation of pollsters, analysts, and Ryan himself in last night’s primary. That was to be a preview of the nationalist-populist strength in the Rust Belt/Midwest region that would carry Donald Trump to victory, regardless of polling or traditional campaign measures such as ground organization and engagement.
So what happened? The Atlantic’s Molly Ball argues that it shows Trumpism doesn’t work without Trump:
That House Speaker Paul Ryan easily won his congressional primary on Tuesday, by a nearly 70-point margin, should not have surprised anyone. Yet the political world was watching the result on tenterhooks, waiting for a surprise that never came. The fact that there was no upset was, in this season of political surprises, news of its own sort: a signal that perhaps the Trumpist ideology that has disrupted the Republican Party this year doesn’t work for anyone not named Donald Trump, and may not outlast him as a force in the GOP. …
There’s a reason Ryan spent several hundred thousand dollars on ads in the primary: The political climate is so uncertain that no politician can afford to take anything for granted. Had Nehlen won or even overperformed the polls, in which he was drawing about 20 percent of the vote, that might have been a signal there was a bigger ideological revolt brewing on the right. Instead, he underperformed.
Actually, Nehlen performed just about at his polling level. The final result had Ryan up 68 points over Nehlen, 84/16. A May poll from Remington put Ryan up 64 points at 78/14, and a poll last week from the same pollster put Ryan up 66 points at 80/14. Nehlen may have underperformed when viewed in relation to Trump’s April presidential-preference primary, but Trump didn’t face off against a popular local incumbent. This outcome had been obvious for months despite all of the bluster, and Nehlen didn’t provide any surprises or serious challenges at all.
The lesson’s simpler than Ball’s suggestion, really. Last night’s results proved yet again a lesson that Republicans still have yet to learn at the presidential level: All politics is local. The reason that Paul Ryan is popular in WI-01 is that he’s done well representing it, and he pays attention to local issues and concerns. He keeps engaging in his district. That’s why air-dropping outsiders like Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter to talk up nationalism and populism didn’t move the needle at all, which gives significant pause to the notion that these populist passions are enough on their own to change general-election outcomes.
All politics is local. Republicans win House races and state legislative seats because Republicans at those levels understand that. It’s Republicans at the presidential level that keep forgetting it.
That brings us to November. We’re hearing a lot of the same arguments and seeing much the same strategy from the Trump campaign — national messaging, insistence that polling is rigged, and that the nationalist-populist movement is being woefully underestimated. If last night’s results from WI-01 are any indicator, though, Team Trump had better break out of its echo chamber and recalibrate its approach. They can at least hedge their bets by shifting its focus to the ground game, and start looking for local connections rather than rely on big rallies and celebrity surrogates to sway the electorate. There’s still time to change course, but it’s rapidly running out.