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The only thing that matters in Wisconsin's Democratic primary

Bernie Sanders is expected to beat Hillary Clinton in the Wisconsin Democratic primary Tuesday, but the only thing that matters is the margin.

Bernie Sanders is expected to beat Hillary Clinton in the Wisconsin Democratic primary Tuesday, but the only thing that matters is the margin. Without a decisive victory, the outcome will do little to change the trajectory of the race. If he loses, on the other hand, Sanders' already sketchy path to the nomination could vanish entirely.

The demographics of the state -- it's 88 percent white -- and its long history of progressive activism have made Wisconsin fertile ground for Sanders. So has its open primary, which allows participation from independents, who strongly favor Sanders. The senator also won neighboring Minnesota and Michigan, which have much in common Wisconsin. He's spent far more time campaigning in the Badger State in recent days than Clinton, and has spent more money there, too.

But recent polls have shown Sanders ahead by, at most, about 5 percentage points. Sanders said Monday night he expects the race to be "very close."

Democrats award delegates proportionally, so Sanders will need to win big to make a dent in Clinton’s 255 pledged delegates lead. That’s especially true in Wisconsin, thanks to the way the system uses congressional district to allot Tuesday's haul.

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As Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel columnist Craig Gilbert wrote last week, “Democratic rules in Wisconsin make it almost impossible to make big delegate gains.” In 2008, for instance, Barack Obama crushed Clinton by 17-points, but netted only 10 delegates from the state. 

Aware the race is unlikely to dramatically affect the delegate outcome, Clinton’s campaign seemed ready to concede the state Monday night. “We could lose Wisconsin,” her campaign said in a fundraising email to supporters. “We’re down in almost every poll in Wisconsin -- tomorrow’s primary is going to be a tough fight.”

That statement should be taken with a giant grain of salt, since Clinton’s campaign has adroitly lowered expectations in previous contests, only to eek out a win and call it an upset. “I think they're trying to depress expectations as much as possible in Wisconsin and then get as many votes as possible,” Sanders' top strategist Tad Devine told MSNBC.

Meanwhile, the Vermont senator has done the reverse, telling massive crowds that they’re on the verge of putting him over the top in Wisconsin. Sanders has spoken to more than 38,000 supporters over the past week alone in numerous stops across the state.

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“Tomorrow, if there is a good turnout in Wisconsin, if there is a record-breaking turnout in Wisconsin, we are going to win here as well,” Sanders told 2,400 in Milwaukee Monday night. 

Turnout is expected to break records Tuesday, thanks to interest in both parties’ presidential primaries and a heated Wisconsin Supreme Court race.

Sanders went on to note that the candidate who wins Wisconsin has gone on to secure the Democratic nomination every year since 1960, except for one. “Wisconsin has played an enormously important role in determining who the president of the United States will be," he said. 

Clinton has focused her efforts on Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, where 40 percent of the population is black.

Clinton has cleaned up with African-American voters throughout the country, so she is hoping for a large turnout Tuesday. She’s visited black churches and the area and locked down endorsements from local leaders and activists, including Rep. Gwen Moore and the mother of Dontre Hamilton, a black teenager killed by police in Milwaukee in 2014.

Madison, meanwhile, is Sanders’ stronghold.

The senator has packed giant arenas in the liberal college town on several occasions, and it was one of the first places where the Sanders movement showed itself. The rural upper areas of the state are also likely to favor Sanders, as they did in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan last month.

Sanders is hoping to compete in Milwaukee with a message aimed at disaffected post-industrial workers, as well as its tens of thousands of college students. He's also focused on Janesville, which has been hard by the decline of manufacturing jobs. 

Cities like Green Bay and Eau Claire are seen as battlegrounds.  

Wisconsin has been overshadowed a bit by New York’s primary on April 19. Neither Clinton nor Sanders will be in Wisconsin to watch returns roll in. Sanders will be in Wyoming, looking ahead to that state’s caucus on Saturday, where he is expected to do well. Clinton will not hold a public event Tuesday.