The 2016 Presidential Primary race has been a fascinating and highly unpredictable affair on all sides. As we approach the business end of the nomination process where frontrunners are expected to begin tying up proceedings, I have travelled out to USA to spend some time in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with local alumnus Dr. Steven Van Hauwaert as the primaries roll into the latest battleground state.
Like much of Wisconsin, Milwaukee is an industrious city and a very friendly place. But demographically it’s atypical of the state in which it sits. Wisconsin is overwhelmingly white (85% of the total population), but in Milwaukee white Americans are in a minority (37%) with African Americans being the largest ethnic group (40%). It’s also home to a large Latino community, who make up nearly a fifth of the city's population. It is an unusual hotbed of multiculturalism in a predominantly white state.
My first glimpse into the mindsets of Milwaukee's citizens as we approached polling day came from one of the city’s African American residents. A taxi driver from the South, she took our fare to the centre of town on a sunny Friday afternoon and was all too happy to talk politics. I asked her who she intended on voting for in the upcoming ballots, to which she replied "Nobody. The way I see it, if they gonna win, they gonna win. But the Presidentials in November? You best be sure to vote in that. Because if you don't, you 'aint got a say."
Her apathy toward the long, drawn out process of selection is no doubt uncommon throughout Wisconsin, which polls 36th in the line of states. This year Wisconsin however is undoubtedly the scene of a crucial period in the campaigns on both sides of the political divide.
For the Democrats, the state is simply a must-win for Senator Bernie Sanders if he has any chance at all of keeping his campaign alive and kicking. Still trailing his rival Secretary Hilary Clinton in pledged delegates (1243 to 980) and super delegates (469 to 31), Sanders needs a solid win here to stay even remotely competitive.
On the Republican side, Wisconsin has been identified as a 'turning point' for the anti- Donald Trump movement, with some arguing that a solid win for Senator Ted Cruz here could be the perfect end for them to a turbulent week for the current frontrunner and send his campaign into a downward spiral.
Sanders, Cruz, and Trump have all been very active in Wisconsin in the past few days, but both Clinton and Governor John Kasich have been fairly absent, with the former already in a key upcoming battleground: New York.
But the Primaries aren't the only elections currently happening here. In between campaign adverts for Presidential candidates squeeze messages from candidates standing for the Wisconsin Supreme Court. And out on the streets of the fourth district, Alderman Bob Bauman's face grins at you from every other bus stop, and the man himself can be found braving the snow and biting wind to hand out leaflets to passing voters.
And last night, thousands of Milwaukee citizens turned up tonight to simultaneous rallies held by Sanders and Trump. These meets served as flash-points for all bodies political in the city; up and down queues of attendees, local candidates and campaigners were handing out leaflets and stickers and conversing with everyone they could.
"If you like Sanders then you should vote for Chris Larsen for County Executive" one campaigner told me, "he is a real Liberal Democrat". Ironically totally unaware of the rather tainted status those two words have among younger voters in the United Kingdom (or indeed that I was from the United Kingdom).
We managed to get in to Sanders' rally, and from the Press block we could see the crowd, staff and press operation from back to front. A full four-hour extravaganza, the Sanders campaign filled the Wisconsin Centre Ballroom with stages and rigs and a big name warm up act in 3OH!3 (among others).
The crowd itself was made up of the usual suspects: though there was a good mix of ages it was predominantly young, and very much ethnically white. All were in good spirits - so much so that some dancing even broke out by the time the headline musical act took to the stage.
The feeling among the staff we spoke to was very upbeat. Professionally, they couldn't be happier to help. And personally they expressed quiet confidence that their candidate would be taking the majority of the 96 pledged delegates on offer tomorrow. The crowd there would have certainly agreed; the great energy which has followed Sanders’ campaign across America is tangible here in Milwaukee.
When Bernie Sanders stepped up to the podium, it was to rapturous applause and deafening cheers. Many in the room had waited hours to see him speak. His speech moved from topic to topic, reaffirming his progressive credentials, key principals and policies, and generally hit all the right Wisconsin buttons - including getting in a jibe or two at unpopular state Governor Scott Walker.
Not everyone here has been jumping on the anti-Walker bandwagon however; earlier in the day, Ted Cruz had been endorsed and introduced to a rally in Green Bay, just north of Milwaukee, by Governor Walker. Speculation is now mounting here that he will be named as Cruz’s running mate.
After Sanders had finished we hastily made our way over to a location a mere hundred or so metres away where Donald Trump had been speaking, hoping to catch whatever we could of the end. Unlike the calm and quiet queue we had stood in a few hours before, we found ourselves surrounded by a heavy police presence, blockades, and steel fencing. Black-clad men stood menacingly at every corner, eyes scanning for any potential trouble makers as flashing blue and red lights illuminated the streets. A completely different atmosphere.
Trump's supporters sticking around outside the venue paid no notice, and many were more than happy to be interviewed, "I'll be voting Donald Trump tomorrow, for sure. He's the only man who'll do what needs to be done", said one. He wouldn't elaborate on precisely what that was.
Another said he admired Trump for being a self made man, a man with common sense. These are all the usual soundbites from voters who feel that Trump is everything that they wish politicians always were - strong, decisive, and a living testament to the American dream.
Appearing on 'Hannity in Wisconsin' broadcast by Fox News later that evening (in an interview filmed earlier in the day), Trump himself was bullish as ever and promised that he 'had a strategy' to defeat Clinton should the two be facing off later in the year.
As the polls open today, Wisconsin may well have a big say in whether or not he will get that chance.