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The Factory Vote in the Badger State

If you're not yet sold on a candidate, I don't blame you. We've heard the same in 2012, '08, and '04, but the trends have continued. Despite all of the campaign promises otherwise, factory jobs are still disappearing.
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The presidential candidates, just like they do every four years, are hitting the factory circuit. There's Ted Cruz at a plastics manufacturer in Oshkosh. Here's Bernie Sanders ripping NAFTA in Kenosha. There goes John Kasich, stumping at a steel fabricator in La Crosse.

As regular as a four-year plague of cicadas, the candidates thunder across America's manufacturing belt, lamenting closed factories, a shrinking middle class, and poorly negotiated trade deals. But this time, they say, will be different. This time, they understand the plight of the American worker, and will follow through on their campaign promises to get tough on trade and bring the manufacturing jobs back to America.

If you're not yet sold on a candidate, I don't blame you.

We've heard the same in 2012, '08, and '04, but the trends have continued. Despite all of the campaign promises otherwise, factory jobs are still disappearing, our trade deficit with China is getting bigger, and the middle class is still shrinking.

Just as it was in Ohio last month and Michigan before that, championing the manufacturing sector - home to middle-income employment for about 470,000 Wisconsin voters - is simply good politics here. The Michigan and Ohio exit polls confirmed what will surprise no one: Trade and manufacturing jobs were major issues to both Democratic and Republican voters. And a new survey of Wisconsinites suggests those issues will be important here too.

A significant number of voters here want to see candidates' game plans to shore up our manufacturing base, and campaigns are responding by testing the messaging out on the stump. Some plans are better than others. On the way to his upset back in Michigan, Bernie Sanders bludgeoned Hillary Clinton with her past support for NAFTA and normalized trade with China, blaming them for precipitating a rush of offshoring. It's partly because of him that Clinton has tailored her message for a more working-class audience and has offered the most specific and promising manufacturing policy proposals to date.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, has made disappointing trade deals and job loss the central complaints of his campaign, even if he does so with hyperbole, hypocrisy, and jingoism. He's ridden this angst to the top of the polls like a rocket, and that has made Ted Cruz notice; in the past few days the Texas senator has been selling his flat tax plan as the key to manufacturing job growth - effectively shoehorning one proposal into another issue that voters care about, while apparently doing a reversal on trade policy, talking up his newfound commitment to fair trade.

But ultimately, it's all just talk. And voters are responding better to specifics.

When Wisconsinites were polled, they were more skeptical of a 45 percent tariff on all Chinese imports - Trump's simplistic fix to the massive U.S.-China trade deficit. But they were strongly in favor of a tougher trade position with China, which suggests they're not buying the line that such a position will touch off a Chinese trade war.

Here's what they are interested in: Tax reform that discourages offshoring and encourages onshoring; expanding access to apprenticeship and other workforce training programs; major public infrastructure repairs; and "Buy America" government procurement rules that set in place a preference for American-made goods.

What's more, Wisconsinites think manufacturing is among the most important sectors of the overall economy, and more still think that offshoring - not automation - is responsible for the loss of factory jobs.

And they absolutely love American-made goods.

Here's how I see these results: This isn't the first time around the block for voters in Wisconsin, and they want serious answers to legitimate questions. They would take a comprehensive national manufacturing policy strategy very seriously - if any of the candidates would campaign on it.

The candidate that stands up for manufacturing has a better chance of winning Wisconsin today and industry-heavy states like Pennsylvania in a few weeks. Expect to hear more manufacturing and trade talk as the primary season slogs ahead.

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