It was around this time four years ago — fewer than 50 days out from the election — when Wisconsin Democrats began grumbling that then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was ignoring them. But Clinton’s campaign was confident in their data, which showed Wisconsin was locked.
On Election Day, Clinton lost Wisconsin by just under 23,000 votes. The Democratic candidate had never stepped foot in the state for a general election visit. Her first TV ad there aired a mere 10 days before the election.
Four years later, it’s clear that presidential nominee Joe Biden and the Wisconsin Democrats have learned some big lessons from that loss.
The campaign has made the state a clear priority: It’s already spent $16 million on ads in the state, with other Democratic groups pouring in an additional $18 million, according to data from Kantar/CMAG. Even with his travel schedule limited due to the coronavirus pandemic, Biden has already traveled to the state twice. California Sen. Kamala Harris, the party’s vice presidential nominee, traveled to the state for her first in-person campaign events earlier this month.
And Democrats in the state can feel it on the ground. “The presence of the Biden campaign is more noticeable than any presence the Clinton campaign had when you could physically do things,” said Mike Tate, a former chair of the state Democratic Party who is now a lobbyist.
The difference is remarkable: Biden holds a clear and consistent lead in public polling, with Biden often topping 50% and Trump struggling to climb out of the low 40s. (Clinton had similar leads in polling, but there have been far more high-quality polls in Wisconsin this cycle, and there are fewer undecided voters.)
“The presence of the Biden campaign is more noticeable than any presence the Clinton campaign had when you could physically do things”
Among the three states that clinched the presidency for Trump — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — Wisconsin has seemed the Trumpiest, even if that hasn’t always been reflected in the polls. While Democrats easily won statewide races in Michigan and Pennsylvania in 2018, Wisconsin’s Democratic Gov. Tony Evers was barely able to ride that year’s “blue wave,” beating then-Gov. Scott Walker (R) by less than a percentage point. And due to gerrymandering, Republicans have outsize power on the Wisconsin state legislature.
Then last month, the police shooting of a Black man in Kenosha led to weeks of protests. Buildings burned and an Illinois teenager who joined armed militia members shot and killed two protesters. Democrats initially feared the events would make Trump’s promises to deliver “law and order” politically potent in the state.
But conversations with Democratic operatives, campaign staffers and elected officials in the state paint an optimistic, albeit cautious, picture of Biden’s chances in Wisconsin. Even Republicans acknowledge that a month after the shooting of Blake, their political position is unchanged.
“I don’t think people’s minds have changed much,” said Mike Graul, a Republican strategist in Wisconsin who worked on George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns.
The GOP is obviously not giving up on the state. Trump and his allies have spent $23 million on television ads. Vice President Mike Pence visited a factory in Eau Claire on Thursday, his third visit to the state in as many weeks.
The location wasn’t a coincidence: Eau Claire is the largest city in western Wisconsin, a region with a mix of swing and solidly conservative counties where the Trump campaign hopes they can drive up turnout among white voters without college degrees.
“One of the things we will see — more people are going to vote in 2020 than did in 2016,” Graul said. ”[Trump] is going to have to get more votes than he did last time.”
Mail-in voting has already started in Wisconsin; nearly a million ballots were sent out in mid-September after a brief fight in the courts that left independent candidate Kanye West and Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins off the final ballot. So far Dane County, home to Madison, has led the state in returns. Wisconsin law requires the ballots to be returned by 8 p.m. on Election Day.
Democrats are fighting in the courts to change that. A federal judge ruled in favor of several voting expansion measures on Monday, which the Republican state legislature has already appealed. The ruling, if it holds, would extend the deadline for absentee ballots to be received to Nov. 9 as long as they are postmarked by Election Day, and extend online and in-person voter registration by a week, from Oct. 14 to Oct. 21. It would also address poll worker shortages due to the pandemic by temporarily tossing out the state law restricting election officials from working outside the counties they’re registered in. The case is expected to go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Jacking up turnout from Trump’s base is necessary because of shifts in Democrats’ favor almost everywhere else in the state. Trump’s national weakness in suburbs has spread here, and Democrats are optimistic about turning out their base voters in Madison and Milwaukee at much higher levels than in 2016.
The Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha County has long been the bedrock of the state’s GOP. But Matt Mareno, the chairman of the county’s Democratic Party, said there were signs of progress. In 2016, he only managed to distribute between 500 and 600 lawn signs for Clinton. By the second week of September this year, he’d already given out 1,500 Biden signs, with more than 1,000 people on a waiting list for the next shipment of signs.
“Historically, people would never have felt comfortable putting something in their yard telling everyone in their neighborhood that they’re voting for a Democrat,” Mareno said. (Still, Mareno felt it necessary to acknowledge a political adage: “Yard signs don’t vote.”)
Trump is still likely to win the county by a substantial margin ― no Democratic presidential candidate has earned more than 40% of the vote in the county since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 ― but the party is hopeful that Milwaukee’s suburbs will begin acting at least slightly more like their cousins around the country. Republicans admit they are facing new threats: Robin Vos, the GOP speaker of the state Assembly, said earlier this month that the party’s legislative seats in the suburbs are “much more in jeopardy than they have been in the past.”
“I can’t recall hosting Spanish language phone banks in the past. I can tell you in 2016, reaching out to the Latino community seemed nonexistent.”
The GOP strength in the suburbs has been historically balanced out by the Democratic dominance of Madison, which combines the culture and politics of a college town with the voting power of much larger cities. Madison is essentially the only part of the state with a growing population, as the combination of the University of Wisconsin and the tech company Epic Systems draw ever more college-educated voters to Madison and surrounding Dane County.
That’s turned into a boon for Democrats: In 2018, Dane County accounted for 11% of all the votes cast in the governor’s race, up from 7% in the 2010 contest. Evers won the county by over 150,000 votes, five times as large as his roughly 29,000-vote margin of victory over Walker.
The other major Democratic turnout center is Milwaukee, the state’s largest city and the center of its Black and Latino populations. A 40,000-vote drop in turnout here in 2016, which coincided with the implementation of a new voter ID law, contributed directly to Trump’s ability to win in 2016 with fewer votes than former GOP nominee Mitt Romney had gotten four years earlier.
Harris’ first campaign trip took her to Milwaukee, where she met with Latino activists and Black businessmen.
Unlike in 2016, Wisconsin’s Democratic Party kept much of its organizing operation from the 2018 midterms in place for the presidential election — a presence that Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said has made a noticeable difference in keeping Black and brown voters engaged.
“I think not only the Biden campaign but Democrats in general across the country understand in order to win the White House it goes through Wisconsin and particularly in order to win Wisconsin, it goes through Milwaukee,” Crowley said.
The state Biden campaign, which is headquartered in Milwaukee, has held weekly Spanish-language phone banks.
“I can’t recall hosting Spanish language phone banks in the past,” said state representative and Milwaukee Alder JoCasta Zamarippa, whose district has the largest Latino community in the state. “That’s an evolution on the part of the Democratic Party to understand that and grasp that as part of the constituency. I can tell you in 2016, reaching out to the Latino community seemed nonexistent.”
Biden’s trip to Wisconsin earlier this week embodied much of his pitch to the state, which has mixed empathy and populism while remaining relentlessly focused on the coronavirus pandemic. In a speech, Biden blamed Trump for the 200,000 deaths caused by the pandemic, saying that the president hid the truth about the dangers of the coronavirus.
“Trump was worried if he told the public the truth, there would be panic in the financial markets. And that would hurt his chances of being reelected,” Biden said. “It’s how Trump looks at the world. He sees the world from Park Avenue. I see the world from where I grew up — Scranton, Pennsylvania.”
A CNN poll released in mid-September shows how Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus has hurt his chances in the state: 63% of likely voters said they were worried about a coronavirus outbreak in their community, 60% were worried about the economy and just 34% were worried about crime. A 54% majority of likely voters trusted Biden to handle the coronavirus pandemic better, while just 41% trusted Trump more.
Most Democratic advertising in the state, both from the Biden campaign and from the super PACs Priorities USA and American Bridge, has focused on health care, the pandemic and Biden’s life story. Democrats say all three messages have been effective in the two key swing areas in the state: the area around Green Bay and the counties bordering the Mississippi River in the state’s southwestern corner.
In more rural parts of the state, Republicans have responded with ads hammering Biden’s record on trade and relations with China, while bombarding the suburbs with spots designed to make Trump’s “law and order” messaging stick.
But those messages, which Democrats once feared, aren’t so scary anymore. The CNN poll found Biden had a 50% to 45% lead on the question of who would keep Americans safe, and was essentially tied with Trump on who would better handle the economy: 49% of likely voters said Trump, and 48% said Biden.
“You have a guy who’s trying to aim for this white, suburban soccer mom thing, without actually talking about anything they care about,” said Khary Penebaker, one of the Democratic National Committee members for the state. “Donald Trump is praying that we’re going to be so dumb and so overwhelmed by all of his nonsense.”