MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin is killing Donald Trump with kindness.
The bombastic mogul drew a polite and well-mannered crowd to the Milwaukee Theater on the eve of the state’s primary, barely filling half of the 4,086-seat venue and failing to attract any sizable protest—despite being a block away from a competing Bernie Sanders event.
Only one protester got ejected. And police told The Daily Beast that they weren’t aware of any organized agitators and hadn’t arrested anyone.
“I haven’t used my handcuffs in months!” said one happy officer.
It was an anticlimactic end to a tough seven days for the real estate baron that may augur more bleak weeks to come. Ted Cruz outmaneuvered him at the North Dakota Republican convention and his own team admitted befuddlement by Louisiana’s rules of delegate allocation. Then came a string of embarrassing interviews—first with Wisconsin talk radio elder statesmen Charlie Sykes, then with Chris Matthews, who coaxed him into a campaign-jeopardizing slip-up on abortion.
So Trump hasn’t been having the best time. And Wisconsin’s primary voters look like they’re set to kick him—in the most friendly, Midwestern way possible!—while he’s down. The state’s best pollster says he’s losing to Ted Cruz by 10 points, and a defeat here would almost certainly mean he’d fall short of getting to the convention in Cleveland with the 1,237 delegates necessary to prevent a contested convention.
It was obvious he was in for a tough time when I rolled into downtown Milwaukee an hour and a half before the event and had zero trouble finding a parking spot by the venue. No line snaked around the block. No disappointed Trump fans mourned that they couldn’t get in. No protesters jeered. But despite my initial panic, I was actually in the right place—there just weren’t that many other people there.
An hour before Trump’s event started, the theater itself was barely a quarter full, with the balcony closed altogether. Half a dozen bros tried to rally the demure crowd by standing at the front of the room and chanting, “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” The response was lukewarm. As showtime drew closer, Trump staffers passed out pre-made TRUMP MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN signs. Some audience members may have brought homemade placards, but I didn’t see any.
At 7 p.m., when the event was scheduled to begin, there will still hundreds of empty seats in the theater. As senior policy adviser Stephen Miller warmed up the crowd by promising they could “deliver a message that will be heard throughout all of history” by voting Trump, a TV reporter noisily did a stand-up interview.
Trump loves to chide cameramen for failing to show panoramic views of his rallies. But in Milwaukee on Monday night, he never made that request. When I left my seat to take pictures of the gloomy back half of the theater, a Trump staffer sternly ordered that I return to my seat.
Trump is supposed to be the greatest show on earth. But in Milwaukee, he struggled to compete with the day’s other top-billed events—including the Tripoli Shrine Circus, which entertained Wisconsinites at the Panther Arena next door, and the Brewers’ opening night baseball game against the San Francisco Giants.
“It was opening day at Miller Park, so I’m sure a good majority of people are still in the party mode,” said Michael Coyle, a Trump supporter from Saukville. “You know, like I heard on the radio, today’s not a day for politics for most people.”
And Erik Brekke, a Trump supporter from Madison, said the city itself wasn’t particularly enamored of his candidate.
“Frankly, I think this is Cruz territory,” he said.
Trump himself kept a brave face on through the evening, noting at the offset that the baseball game hadn’t done his crowd size any favors. And he said that an unnamed friend of his from Wisconsin who is “a very smart guy, I want to tell you, great guy,” thinks he will win on Tuesday.
Trump also asserted that just about all military veterans back his candidacy.
“The vets have endorsed me virtually unanimously,” he said, glowing with confidence.
And he said his campaign in Wisconsin has gone “boom like a rocket ship. It’s like a rocket.”
The approximately 2,500 people who filled more than half but less than two-thirds of the venue cheered and clapped at all the right times. And after the mogul wrapped his speech, they quickly emptied out of the theater to the plaintive tones of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”