The seventh in a weekly series
In late August, veteran pollster Peter Hart conducted a focus group of swing voters in Brookfield, Wis., just outside of Milwaukee. The responses from the 12 participants, which made headlines at the time, no longer seem shocking because we’ve heard so many similar stories over the last two months.
Asked to compare the 2016 election to a scent, voters responded with descriptions including “rotten eggs,” “garbage,” “manure,” and “a skunk’s fart.” In another question, voters likened the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to being forced to choose between a “liar” and your “drunk uncle.”
Fear and loathing of the choice facing voters on Nov. 8 is one of the defining features of this election, and not just among swing voters. Nowhere is that more true than in Wisconsin, which stands alone as the only battleground state this year where Democrats and Republicans resoundingly rejected both current nominees in their party primaries earlier this year.
It seems a distant memory, but Bernie Sanders, led by a wave of millennials and progressives, crushed Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin by 13 percentage points in that April 5 primary. Ted Cruz, boosted by well-organized anti-Trump forces in a last-ditch effort to derail Trump’s candidacy, prevailed in the Badger State by an equal margin.
Now Clinton, Trump, and their respective surrogates are back, courting many of the very same voters who spurned them just months ago. With turnout at a premium, both candidates face challenges in motivating their voters to get to the polls. As of this week, Hillary Clinton holds a 6.7 point lead over Donald Trump in the RealClearPolitics Average of polls in Wisconsin.
Girding for Another Political War
Wisconsin may be the birthplace of the Grand Old Party, but it hasn’t gone for a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan’s 49-state landslide win in 1984. George W. Bush nearly flipped the state red in 2000, losing to Al Gore by just 5,708 votes out of more than 2.5 million ballots cast. Bush almost did it again in 2004, losing to John Kerry by only 11,384 votes.
After those consecutive nail-biters, the state fell hard for Barack Obama in 2008, with Wisconsinites giving him a 14-point win, nearly double the margin by which he won election nationally. Ditto 2012, when the state gave Obama a seven-point victory while winning nationally by just less than four.
But things changed in Wisconsin in 2010, when a young, ambitious conservative Milwaukee County Executive named Scott Walker won the gubernatorial race. Walker’s election, and the subsequent battle over his agenda that included taking on public sector unions, turned Wisconsin into a proxy war between the most powerful political forces in America.
Walker was in office less than a year before the effort to recall him began. He survived the 2012 recall, and won a hard fought re-election in 2014. A recall of a state Supreme Court justice in 2011 and battles over the razor-thin control of the state Senate added to the mayhem. For six straight years, the two major political parties in Wisconsin have been engaged in constant hand-to-hand political combat. One side effect is that the foot soldiers in both parties are trained, organized, and informed. Democrats and Republicans know exactly where all the votes are in the state and how to deliver them.
The downside of such perpetual political warfare is that all but the most hard-core ideologues are fatigued. Voters are tired of the ads, phone calls, mailers, and constant exhortations about the next election being the most important of their lives.
By most accounts, there’s one group of voters who aren’t exhausted: supporters of Donald Trump. That’s the good news for Trump: His folks are energized and excited. The bad news for the GOP nominee? There’s probably not enough of them for him to win.
Trump needs more Republican voters, particularly in Waukesha County, a heavily Republican suburb just west of Milwaukee. Waukesha delivered 161,567 votes to Mitt Romney in 2012, a 35-point margin of victory over Obama. Trump isn’t anywhere near that right now.
“Even though Trump is winning the Milwaukee suburbs, he’s only winning by a little bit, and he ought to be winning by a lot."
“Even though Trump is winning the Milwaukee suburbs, he’s only winning by a little bit, and he ought to be winning by a lot,” said Charles Franklin, professor of law and public policy and director of the Marquette Law School Poll. “Those Milwaukee suburbs have not only very high Republican Party votes normally, they also have tremendously high turnout rates. So it’s a double whammy if the most populous, most Republican areas are falling short.”
Can he make it up in other parts of the state? One former star in Wisconsin politics thinks so. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson told RCP that Trump is running strong in places where Republicans haven’t always done well.
“Donald is resonating in Democratic areas like the 7th Congressional District as well as the 3rd that have been going Democratic,” said Thompson, who cites that strength as a reason he believes Trump can win the state in November.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton faces her own turnout challenge. Namely, she needs to get African-Americans in Milwaukee and millennials in Dane County, home of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to the polls on Election Day.
“Clinton is getting about 55 percent in Dane County,” said Franklin, “and she should be getting 65 to 70 percent. So that’s the effect of young people who are not attracted to her, or who are pining away for Sanders or gravitating to [Gary] Johnson and, to a lesser extent, [Jill] Stein.”
Bernie Sanders returned to Wisconsin last Tuesday, the first time he'd been back to the state since delivering his victory speech in April. Sanders, at a rally in Madison that drew 1,100 people, urged his supporters to back Clinton.
"Get beyond the personality. Get beyond the negativity," Sanders said. "Just take a hard look at which candidate is better for the middle classs and working families of this country, and when we do that, we will find overwhelmingly that Hillary Clinton is that candidate."
Young voters have been super-sensitized to unwanted sexual advances and the latest Marquette poll, which was conducted Thursday through Sunday, showed Clinton benefiting substantially from the distasteful revelations of the Trump audio recording released Friday afternoon. Thursday’s sample, taken before the tape became public, showed Trump leading Clinton by one point. But the samples taken on Saturday and Sunday had Clinton ahead by 19 points. (All of the samples were concluded before the debate in St. Louis, so it’s currently unclear what impact, if any, Trump’s performance on Sunday night might have had.)
The Donald vs. Paul
No one could have predicted that three men who grew up just a few miles from each other in southeastern Wisconsin would eventually rise to command the ultimate heights of the Republican Party. Yet by 2015 Scott Walker, Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus had done just that, with Walker as a two-term governor and presidential contender, Ryan the 2012 vice presidential nominee and later speaker of the House, and Priebus as the well-liked head of the Republican National Committee.
Then came Trump, who bullied his way to the presidential nomination and became titular head of that very same Republican Party.
Walker, surprisingly, was the first Republican to be chased from the 2016 race, in part because of Trump’s presence in Iowa. Although Walker urged most of the other contenders to drop out to stop Trump for the good of the party, none of them obliged. Months later Walker ended up endorsing the billionaire businessman.
Despite the obvious pain it’s caused him at times, Priebus has largely played the role of loyal party chairman, sticking with Trump throughout the nominee’s controversies, including the 2005 recording of Trump making lewd remarks about women.
Ryan’s relationship with the standard-bearer has been uncomfortable and contentious throughout the campaign. It finally boiled over this week when Ryan disinvited Trump to an event in Wisconsin on Saturday after the audio went viral Friday afternoon. Ryan followed that by telling members of the House Republican caucus on Monday, “You all need to do what's best for you and your district.”
“I don’t want [Paul Ryan’s] support. I don’t care about his support.”
Trump responded with a barrage of tweets berating Ryan as a “weak and ineffective leader” and for not being supportive. He followed that by trashing Ryan in an interview Tuesday night with Bill O’Reilly. “I don’t want his support,” Trump said in reference to Ryan. “I don’t care about his support. What I want to do is I want to win for the people.”
Ryan remains popular in his home state, but it’s unclear exactly how the Ryan-Trump feud might play out on Nov. 8, either at the top of the ticket or in the down-ballot races.
The Underdog Incumbent
Among those down-ballot races is one of the country’s most-watched Senate contests. In 2010, Ron Johnson was a heavy underdog to upset a three-term Democratic incumbent in a blue-leaning state. But the Republican wave of 2010 rose high enough to wash Russ Feingold out to Lake Superior, and Johnson won by five points.
Six years later, Johnson is experiencing déjà vu. Once again he’s running against Russ Feingold. Once again he’s the underdog. Until recently, Johnson had been one of the few incumbent Republican senators polling lower than Trump in his home state. While Johnson colleagues Kelly Ayotte (New Hampshire) and Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania) are facing similarly difficult re-election environments, they’re running roughly six to nine points better than Trump in their respective blue-tilting states. One sign of just how bad things have gotten for Johnson is that both the Republican and Democratic senatorial committees pulled their resources out of Wisconsin last week, to move that money to states they believe are more competitive.
Yet any pronouncement of Johnson’s political demise might be premature. A new Marquette poll released Wednesday shows him trailing Feingold by just two points, 46 percent to 44 percent, a net gain of three points from last month’s survey. Other polls appear to show a tightening of the race as well. Feingold’s lead over Johnson in the RealClearPolitics Average currently stands at three points, a significant drop from a couple of weeks ago.
Johnson’s struggles stem in part from his lack of familiarity with voters in the state. Despite having been in office for the last six years, he still isn’t very well known.
“One of [Johnson’s] strategic mistakes was to think that he should be spending time in Washington, D.C., doing his job, as opposed to raising his profile.”
“I’m a supporter of Ron Johnson,” says conservative radio show host Charlie Sykes, “but one of his strategic mistakes was to think that he should be spending time in Washington, D.C., doing his job as opposed to raising his profile. He’s very conscientious, he’s incredibly hard-working, he’s very effective on the issues he’s done, but that has not translated to a higher profile back home, which is the unfortunate reality.”
Polling confirms Sykes’ point. The percentage of people who say they “don’t know” enough about Johnson to have a favorable or unfavorable opinion about him has consistently hovered around 30. And that’s still where he stands less than a month from Election Day. Feingold, on the other hand, remains a well-known quantity to Wisconsinites, despite having been off the stage for the last six years.
And like other Republican incumbents running for re-election, Johnson has struggled with the Trump factor. Throughout the summer and much of the fall, Johnson kept his distance, saying that he would support the Republican nominee without explicitly endorsing Trump. That awkward dance continued last week with the release of Trump’s “Access Hollywood” recording. Johnson called Trump’s comments “completely indefensible” which the first-term senator hopes does not turn out to be the epitaph for Republicans’ chances in Wisconsin next month.
Next week: Nevada/Latinos