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In January, Milwaukee was ready for its national close-up. Thousands of visitors had their flights, hotels and parties booked, ready for the Democrats’ national nominating convention this summer. It was designed to reignite Democratic activism in a city that is solidly blue but whose residents four years earlier were, at best, ambivalent about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.
Then the coronavirus arrived and forced the made-for-TV event to downsize, downgrade and go virtual, taking away a chance for Democrats to regain their organizing footing in Wisconsin and help build a political machine that could run up the score in a city every bit as great as its neighbor 90 minutes to the south, Chicago.
The battle for Wisconsin — a state Donald Trump won four years ago by fewer than 23,000 votes, or 1.7 percentage points — has clearly captured the attention of both national parties in 2020. As The D.C. Brief continues its tour of the battleground states this week, today we stop in Wisconsin, long considered part of Democrats’ so-called Blue Wall that would be a last-stand of sorts against Republican wins.
Not since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 run had the state gone for the GOP nominee. With its Midwestern strain of practical progressivism and liberal strongholds like Milwaukee and Madison, the state was often a white whale for Republicans. Republican Gov. Scott Walker, after all, had a lock on the state for years, and proved that the GOP could prevail there with the right mix of muscle, moxie and money. (That was until the 2018 Blue Wave proved too much for Walker to survive, as my pal, The Associated Press’ Man in Madison Scott Bauer, reported at the time.)
Trump’s win in Wisconsin four years ago was a seismic event. His message to white, working-class voters plainly resonated. Clinton, notably, never visited the state as the nominee. Black voters’ enthusiasm for the Democratic nominee sank through the basement. Data was telling Clinton’s team in Brooklyn that Wisconsin was nothing to worry about. That was a flub of the first order. “But Wisconsin!” was only second to “But her emails!” in the annoying outbursts political reporters have been using as shorthand for the last four years.
Heading into 2020, Democrats knew they needed to offset the Republican suburban counties northwest of Milwaukee, but not by much. Trump in 2016 underperformed Mitt Romney’s numbers in those suburbs by 7 percentage points. What Democrats needed was a way to fight in the Green Bay area, which went for Romney in 2012 by 4 percentage points and then went for Trump by 18 points. In both blocs, that meant Democrats needed to build an alliance of white voters without college degrees and Black voters.
With days to go before votes start to be tallied, Biden appears on better footing than Clinton — in no small part due to his running mate Kamala Harris whose historic run is expected to energize Black voters. In the 57 polls being treated credibly by Real Clear Politics this year, three show Trump ahead and three show him tied in the state.
But it’s not locked in for Democrats in Wisconsin. Clinton at this point four years ago was up 6.5 percentage points, according to the Real Clear Politics polling averages. Biden is up 6.4 percentage points in the same meta-analysis. A Washington Post/ ABC News poll released yesterday suggested Biden’s lead to be an actual 17 percentage points. Very, very few political pros believe this to be the case, citing the fact no other polls show it to be that much of a runaway for the former VP. The most plausible reason Republicans aren’t despondent about Wisconsin comes down to who is expected to show up: While Democrats have almost doubled their early voting numbers from 2016, Republicans are up four-fold.
Democrats are counting on a return to 2012-level energy among Black voters to help them win the state. That year, they had a three-point increase in their support of Obama over 2008. But, according to one study, Black voter participation in Wisconsin fell 20 percent between 2012 and 2016. As The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s terrific political writer Craig Gilbert notes, Rep. Gwen Moore likened watching Clinton’s get-out-the-vote operation to “watching the tumbleweeds roll down the street.”
Outside factors may help Democrats crystalize the choice facing Black voters in this political moment. In August, police responding to reports of a domestic incident shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back four times, leaving him paralyzed. Deep unrest followed in Kenosha, about 45 minutes south of Milwaukee. Protestors took to the streets, demanding justice for Blake. In the fallout, more Badger State natives became wise that Wisconsin is among the states with the highest incarceration rates of Blacks in the country. Milwaukee has the third-highest incarceration rate of Blacks in the country among cities.
Both Trump and Biden visited the state after the shooting, giving Black voters a clear view of what their choices were come November. Trump stood with the police, who say they were responding to a call about someone with an outstanding arrest warrant and, they say, had a knife. Biden called for compassion and police reform.
At a September street party honoring Blake, civic groups offered voter registration forms for Black residents of Kenosha, who are 12 times as likely to be incarcerated as their white neighbors, according to research. Democrats have made a major push on radio, and Biden is on TV and cable in Wisconsin with an ad aimed explicitly at Black millennials. Says one of the young Black men in Flint featured in the ad: “Everybody says your vote is your voice, so I feel like if you don’t vote, you are comfortable being silenced.”
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