Wisconsin’s Reputation for Swinging Expected to Extend to 2020

January 17, 2020 by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON – Even among battleground states, Wisconsin is considered special; a study in political contrasts if ever there was one.

It went for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, flipped to Donald Trump in 2016 by the narrowest of margins — just 0.77% — then turned around in 2018, handing Democrats a clean sweep in the year’s statewide elections while standing pat with a Republican majority in its congressional delegation.

As Dan Bice, the esteemed Milwaukee Journal Sentinel political columnist said during a WUWM radio broadcast unpacking the mid-term election results, Wisconsin “is a deeply red state and a deeply blue state.”

That’s a big reason why, recognizing Trump won in 2016 by just 22,746 votes out of more than 2.9 million cast, the Democratic National Committee decided to hold its nominating convention in Milwaukee next July.

It is also why Trump still believes he’s got a chance to keep it in his column.

In 2016, the president struggled to appeal to the traditionally Republican-leaning voters in the Milwaukee suburbs. At the same time, the state has a higher percentage  than any other Rust Belt state of the white, non-college-educated rural voters who remain his strongest supporters.

Little wonder then that Dan Balz, veteran Washington Post political analyst, calls Wisconsin, which holds its presidential primary on April 7, “the single state upon which the election could turn.”

During a recent background briefing at this summer’s convention site, the Fiserv Forum, in Milwaukee, Democratic officials suggested they could think of no better place to have a showdown with Trump.

On the one hand, as 2016 illustrated, he has largely alienated college-educated voters in the once reliably Republican suburbs like Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington, they said.

As Charles Franklin, who conducts political polls for the Marquette University Law School, has said, all three of these counties do still vote Republican, but with much less fervor than they used to.

Democrats also believe Wisconsin is one of the best places in the country to demonstrate that Trump has broken his promises to those who put him in office. They contend that thanks to his tariffs and trade wars, he has made the state the “farm bankruptcy capital of the country.”

Agriculture is a huge part of Wisconsin’s economy, employing almost 12 percent of all workers in the state, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Patty Edelburg, vice president of the National Farmers Union, told Yahoo Finance that since Trump began his trade war with China over a year and a half ago, dairy farms in Wisconsin have been going out of business at a rate of about two a day.

NPR has estimated  nearly 10% of Wisconsin dairy farmers went out of business in 2019, this after the state lost almost 1,200 dairy farms between 2016 and 2018.

Currently, there are about 7,292 dairy herds in the state, down from 9,304 herds at the start of Trump’s presidency, and a high of 16, 264 herds in August 2003.

Wisconsin has also led the nation in farm bankruptcies for three years in a row, according to U.S. Courts data, with dairy farmers carrying most of the burden.

And while the Trump administration created a special bailout  program to help farmers deal with the collateral effects of the trade war, an analysis by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, showed that $12 billion of the initial $16 billion appropriated for the program went to huge agribusinesses.

Scott Faber, the group’s senior vice president for government affairs, said the program has been a disaster for family farmers hoping for relief.

“By failing to put more reasonable limits on farm bailout payments, Trump’s USDA will provide the lion’s share of the payment to the largest and most successful farmers,” he said, adding that bailout payments shouldn’t be made to “millionaires and city slickers who do not live or work on a farm.”

Cassidy Geoghegan, Wisconsin outreach director for Priorities USA, a superPAC working in four battleground states to oust the president in November, said stories about the pain this situation has caused are all too common in the state.

“Trump’s economy isn’t benefiting most Wisconsinites. Health care costs in Wisconsin continue to rise, farmers are having to sell their cows and close down their operations and wages just aren’t keeping up,”  Geoghegan said. “Billionaires and big corporations might be doing fine, but we can’t say the same for the many hard-working Wisconsinites suffering due to Trump’s reckless trade war and harmful policies.” 

While she conceded many of the challenges afflicting Wisconsin farmers pre-date Trump, she insists his policies have made them worse.

“And it’s not just the farming communities that are hurting. Thanks to the trade war, Wisconsin lost 6,500 manufacturing jobs in the first nine months of 2019.”

The group just spent $5.8 million on television advertising in Wisconsin, this on top of the millions it has already invested in digital ads to be shown in Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania.

Geoghegan said the market breakdown in Wisconsin includes: $3.4 million in Milwaukee, $1.8 million in Green Bay and $640,000 in the La Crosse/Eau Claire market. The television spots are scheduled to begin airing in late February.

Speaking with reporters in Milwaukee earlier this month, David Bergstein, DNC Director of Battleground State Communications, said the convention “will help as part of the DNC and Wisconsin Democrats historic early effort to lay the groundwork for our eventual nominee to win the state and win 270 electoral votes.”

Democrats say the keys to winning Wisconsin in November are increasing turnout and swaying persuadable voters. Party officials estimate that Democratic and other grassroots groups knocked on 54,000 doors in Wisconsin in three days in November alone.

“We saw in 2018 and we’ve seen in other elections that suburban and rural voters are starting to swing sharply away from the Republican Party, so we’re organizing in every community. We’re reaching out to voters in every part of the state,” Bergstein said.

Geoghegan said some grassroots groups, inspired by the upsetting outcome of 2016, have been knocking on doors and otherwise reaching out to voters for months.

Responding to Bergstein’s comments, Anna Kelly, Wisconsin press secretary for the Trump campaign said, ” Wisconsinites know that President Trump is delivering on the promises he made in 2016 and they’re going to remember that when they go to the polls in November.”

Speaking to Fox 11 News in Wisconsin, Kelly predicted that the Republicans’ ground game and fundraising will defeat any edge Democrats gain from the Milwaukee convention.

She also suggested the party will also have a technological edge.

“We have over 3,000 data points on every single voter in the United States and that really allows us to tailor our campaign to them individually, rather than just looking at the locality of it,” said Kelly.

That database has reportedly identified more than 188,000 GOP voters who did not show up at the polls last time around.

“We want to get to those 188,000 and get them involved,” a member of the the Trump reelection campaign said.

The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee are also working with the state party to train local party leaders and activists in voter registration, canvassing and other organizing basics.

Republicans have already hired 14 field staff around the state and hope to double the 61 GOP staffers that were there in 2016, a Trump campaign official said.

The most recent Marquette University poll, released Wednesday, shows a tight general election race in November.

The poll has Vice President Joe Biden defeating Trump in a head-to-head matchup, 49 percent to 45 percent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, defeating Trump by just one percent in a similar matchup, and all the other Democrats losing to the incumbent Republican.

The poll has a margin of error of +/-4.1 percentage points.

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