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First Read: Why Wisconsin is the New New Hampshire

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

One week out, all eyes on the Badger State Battle

Spring break is officially in the rearview mirror for the 2016 candidates, with every remaining presidential hopeful hitting the trail in Wisconsin. The Badger State is almost taking on a role like New Hampshire: Because it’s the only state voting in an otherwise empty stretch, it’s less about delegate math than it is about momentum on both sides. It feels like we’re coming out of halftime and the next scoring opportunity offers the team that seizes it a chance to reset. For Republicans, the #NeverTrump movement has to prove it’s got the juice to slow the frontrunner’s momentum, because they’re going to have a much harder time stopping him if they don’t change this narrative fast. Meanwhile, Trump hopes to make plays in areas like Green Bay and Paul Ryan’s hometown of Janesville to flex his muscles with traditional and non-traditional GOP base voters alike. By the way, watch for the complex rules of GOP delegate allocation to influence how the campaigns operate. While 18 of the state’s 42 delegates will be awarded to the statewide winner, the majority – 24 delegates – will be allocated to the winners in specific congressional districts. That means that candidates are likely to hammer away at the areas of the state where they feel they have best chance of racking up a CD win. And, of course, keep an eye out today too for Gov. Scott Walker’s “formal decision” in the GOP primary.

And on the Democratic side, Sanders needs a big win

Coming off of his big wins in Alaska, Hawaii and Washington, the burden will be on Bernie Sanders to continue his momentum with a big win in Wisconsin. If we’re looking at the state as a sort of “second-half New Hampshire,” Sanders needs a New Hampshire-style double-digit win. With delegates split proportionally between the two candidates, a small victory doesn’t push Sanders closer to closing the gap with Clinton or bolster his argument about his ability to chip in her lead.

Turf play

Yesterday, reporters were treated to dueling conference calls from the Clinton and Sanders campaigns about their strategies going forward. While Clinton’s team called her delegate lead “nearly insurmountable,” Team Sanders noted that much of that lead comes from states that the Vermont senator “didn’t contest.” It’s absolutely true that Sanders spent few or no real resources in some states where Clinton ran up the score, like Georgia (Clinton net gain of +45 pledged delegates), Texas (Clinton +70 pledged delegates), and Florida (Clinton +68 pledged delegates). But it’s also true that he spent not-insignificant sums on TV and radio advertising in states where Clinton walked away with more pledged delegates. Here are states where Sanders spent $500,000 or more on the air, and their respective net pledged delegate results.

  • South Carolina - $972k (Clinton net +25 pledged delegates)
  • Oklahoma - $1.1m (Sanders net +4)
  • Ohio - $2.3m (Clinton net +19)
  • North Carolina - $972k (Clinton net +13)
  • New Hampshire - $10.2m (Sanders net +6)
  • Nevada - $3.6m (Clinton net +5)
  • Missouri - $1.4m (Clinton net +1)
  • Minnesota - $1.1m (Sanders net +15)
  • Michigan - $2.9m (Sanders net +7)
  • Massachusetts - $1.6m (Clinton net +1)
  • Iowa - $8.5m (Clinton net +2)
  • Illinois - $1.3m (Clinton net +6)
  • Colorado - $1.4m (Sanders net +10)
  • Washington - $1.3m (Sanders +16 so far, with more delegates to be allocated)

We’re scratching our heads a little about what the Sanders’ campaign is trying to argue here. If you’re conceding that you failed to keep your opponent from running up the score because you didn’t play defense, how is that anything but conceding that your strategy misfired?

Where the Democratic delegate race stands

The NBC News Decision Desk allocated additional super delegates in the Democratic race yesterday afternoon. Here’s where the contest stands now:

In pledged delegates, Clinton holds a 259-delegate lead over Sanders (it was 294 before Saturday)

  • Clinton 1237 (56%)
  • Sanders 978 (44%)

In overall delegates (including superdelegates) Clinton holds a 679-delegate lead (it was 709 before Saturday)

  • Clinton 1686 (63%)
  • Sanders 1007 (37%)

Clinton must win 34% of overall remaining delegates to reach the 2383 magic number

Sanders must win 66% of overall remaining delegates to reach the 2383 magic number.

Trump scrambles on delegate strategy

While he’s the unquestionable frontrunner (our new NBC News|SurveyMonkey poll out today shows him flirting with 50 percent among Republicans nationwide), but Donald Trump still has a big problem: Delegate strategy is complicated, and it’s hard work. Over the weekend, he threatened to sue over Ted Cruz’s maneuvering to secure additional delegates in Louisiana, and yesterday his campaign told NBC’s Ari Melber that it plans to challenge the state’s delegate slate with the RNC. What’s more, Trump’s campaign is hiring veteran political hand (and 1976 convention guru for Gerald Ford!) Paul Manafort and opening a DC office to streamline its delegate efforts. While those are serious moves, the Trump effort is also earning some snickers for suggesting that Louisiana’s delegate slots were allocated at a “secret meeting” – at the publicly scheduled state GOP convention, which Trump’s two state co-chairmen attended. There’s no question that Cruz is currently outgunning Trump on this front. If Trump is going to blow it, this may be how he ultimately goes down: Dropping the ball again and again on seemingly small-ball delegate fights with big consequences in the aggregate.

Obama chimes in on political journalism and 2016

In perhaps his harshest critique of the media during his presidency, President Obama lit into the “carnival atmosphere” of the 2016 campaign and chastised journalists for failing to adequately fact-check candidates who “can’t possibly deliver his or her own promises.” Speaking at the Toner Award Ceremony in D.C., Obama said that “a job well done is about more than just handing someone a microphone.” And he complained that “just because something is substantive doesn’t mean it is not interesting.” We’ll just point out here that many folks who have covered the Obama White House for seven years may have been rolling their eyes a little bit at the president’s remarks, wishing that perhaps he had practiced what he preached a little more throughout his whole administration.

On the trail

All the 2016 candidates are barnstorming in Wisconsin. All three Republicans will appear at a CNN townhall in Milwaukee after holding various events in the state, while Clinton and Sanders will both rally supporters at several campaign stops.