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Biden, Trump win Wisconsin primaries, but protest votes hint at challenges for November

Some Democratic voters cast 'uninstructed' ballots while Republican voters supported Trump rivals who dropped out of the race weeks ago

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This combo image shows Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, left, March 9, 2024 and President Joe Biden, right, Jan. 27, 2024. Many Americans are unenthusiastic about a November rematch of the 2020 presidential election. But presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump appears to stoke more fear and anger among voters from his opposing party than President Joe Biden does from his. That’s according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. AP Photo

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump easily carried Wisconsin’s Democratic and Republican primaries Tuesday, even as both saw protest votes that underscore the challenges they face ahead of their November rematch.

More than three hours after polls closed Tuesday, Biden had received about 88 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, according to unofficial totals from The Associated Press. Trump had received about 79 percent of the vote in the Republican primary. The AP called both races shortly after 8 p.m.

While five other Republicans and one other Democrat appeared on the ballot, all had dropped out of the race, leaving Biden and Trump as the only active candidates. Both men secured their parties’ nominations weeks ago.

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That didn’t stop voters from supporting other candidates — or causes.

In the Republican primary, Trump failed to crack 80 percent of the vote, even though his rivals all dropped out of the race weeks ago.

In the Democratic primary, the “uninstructed” votes made Wisconsin the latest state among several where Democrats had voiced their concerns with Biden.

‘Uninstructed’ voters turn out to protest war in Gaza

Biden easily carried the Democratic primary, where his only named challenger, Dean Phillips, the Minnesota U.S. representative who exited the race on March 6, received roughly 3 percent of the vote.

The uninstructed vote polled much higher at more than 8 percent. Organizers of a campaign to protest Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza more than doubled their goal of 20,000 uninstructed votes, which was Biden’s margin of victory in 2020. Activists hope the total will send Biden’s administration a message that he cannot take their votes for granted in the critical battleground state.

“The path to the White House runs through Wisconsin,” said Halah Ahmad, a spokesperson for the uninstructed campaign. “We think that this is a resounding warning sign to President Biden that his decision to fund and justify Israel’s far right-wing regime and its war and its genocide in Gaza is alienating voters across the country, and in one of the most important states to win.”

Some voters exiting their polling places said their goal Tuesday was simply to state their values. 

Griffin Granberry, a Madison voter, told WPR he felt Biden has been good for the economy but chose to vote uninstructed because he “would like to see a little bit more pressure on Israel.”

The uninstructed vote was slightly higher in Dane County, a Democratic stronghold that has helped propel the party to a string of statewide victories in Wisconsin. There, almost 15 percent voted uninstructed. In Milwaukee County, it was about 12 percent.

Wisconsin is among the most significant swing states to produce a sizable uncommitted result. Michigan, another key battleground, saw 100,000 uncommitted votes in March, comprising about 13 percent of the vote. Nearly a fifth of Minnesota Democrats, or 46,000, voted uncommitted.

Still, Wisconsin Democrats said Tuesday’s results were a positive sign for Biden. While not a head-to-head contest, Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Ben Wikler noted in a written statement that Biden had outpolled Trump.

“Today, Wisconsinites turned out in force to make their voices heard, delivering a resounding victory for President Joe Biden in the Democratic Primary and racking up tens of thousands more votes than Trump,” Wikler said.

Two ladies sit together at a table. One hands a ballot to a voter.
Lois Dukes, right, hands a voter a ballot while sitting next to fellow poll worker Barb Feran, center, on Tuesday, April 2, 2024, at the Beloit Public Library in Beloit, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Trump wins Republican primary, but GOP fractures remain

Trump’s runaway primary win in Wisconsin was by no means a surprise, but the votes for his former Republican rivals show at least some Republicans are shying away from the former President.

Unofficial results from Tuesday’s primary show about 79 percent of GOP voters chose Trump, while almost 13 percent of GOP voters threw their support behind South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Another 3 percent voted for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Both dropped out of the presidential race weeks ago, meaning the votes are strictly a symbolic show of dissatisfaction with the GOP’s nominee. 

But at the Ki Convention Center in Green Bay hours earlier, the mood among Republicans was anything but reluctant when Trump took the stage to rally his supporters. After falsely claiming he won the state in the 2020 election, Trump told the ebullient crowd he would keep his comments brief so they could make it to the polls for what he predicted would be a “landslide” primary victory.

“A vote for Trump is a vote to save Wisconsin, and it’s a vote to save your country,” Trump said. 

Four years ago, Trump was unopposed in the state’s 2020 April primary and came away with nearly 98 percent of the Republican vote. In 2016, Trump lost the Wisconsin primary to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz by around 13 percentage points, though he went on to defeat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by less than a percentage point in the state’s 2016 general election.

Former Pres. Donald Trump speaks to supporters Tuesday, April 2, 2024, at Hyatt Regency in Green Bay, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

All signs currently point to another close November election in Wisconsin. A Marquette University Law School poll of Wisconsin voters from late January showed Trump and Biden virtually tied nine months out from Election Day.

The same poll showed both Trump and Biden had net-negative approval ratings, with about 17 percent of all voters holding negative opinions of both candidates.

As he left his polling place in the Columbia County town of Arlington early Tuesday afternoon, Trump voter Graham Counihan said he reluctantly supported the former president. He said he backs Republicans but wished there were better options.

“We need some new blood in the system, some younger blood,” Counihan said.  “The old boys club reopened.”

Editor’s note: WPR’s Sarah Lehr contributed reporting to this story.