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3 key factors to watch in the Wisconsin primary

Ted Cruz made a campaign stop at Mars Cheese Castle in Kenosha the day before Wisconsin’s presidential primary Tuesday.Darren Hauck/Getty Images

Forget the delegates at stake in today’s Wisconsin primary. What really matters in Tuesday’s results is whether a front-runner’s momentum can be stopped -- and if any other candidates can parlay a win into a convincing argument they still have a path to the nomination.

With that in mind, here are three key factors to watch in the Wisconsin primary:

The WOW counties

While Wisconsin is largely dominated population-wise by Milwaukee and Madison, the winner of any Republican primary here is the candidate who can win three suburban counties circling Milwaukee: Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington. Almost 40 percent of the state’s Republican primary comes from these counties. Scott Walker became Wisconsin’s governor and remains Wisconsin’s governor thanks to his support in this area.


The ‘open’ primary

Like some other states, Wisconsin allows independents to vote in either primary. So far this year this has been a good thing for US Senator Bernie Sanders. His biggest primary wins were in other “open” states, including Michigan, New Hampshire and his home state of Vermont.

Sanders has been clear all week that he is hoping for high turnout in Wisconsin, particularly among non-traditional Democratic primary voters. That could be the biggest factor in who wins the Democratic primary here.

Republicans in rural counties

Recent polls show Ted Cruz leading Donald Trump by single-digits. With that slim margin, who wins the large swath of rural communities could be key to the GOP primary, even if these areas are much less populous than the Milwaukee suburbs.

Specifically, local Republicans say they are watching the 3rd Congressional District, which is in the southwestern part of the state along the Minnesota border. They are also watching the two congressional districts in the northern tier of the state (the 7th and 8th Districts.)

These areas could go for either Cruz or Trump. Their GOP populations are more ideologically aligned with Cruz, however there are many recent examples (such as the Florida panhandle) where these voters scrapped ideology in favor of Trump’s message about the political elite.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign at www.bostonglobe.com/groundgame.