How Trump Plans to Win Wisconsin

Mark Jefferson knows what he must do to deliver the state of Wisconsin to Donald Trump: energize and expand the President’s base.

“The President has a lot of room to grow,” Jefferson, executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party, tells The Progressive. “We’re going to get people in areas of heavy support even more enthusiastic and build those margins.” He believes state Republicans can do “even better in base areas” than they did in 2016, when Trump won the state by fewer than 23,000 votes.  

Republican efforts to reduce the number of opposing voters are also aided by harsh anti-labor laws enacted in Wisconsin over the previous decade. These have fragmented unions’ ability to educate and mobilize members in support of broader working-class interests.

Jefferson’s “base voters” are far more diverse, at least economically, than the caricature of backward-looking blue-collar workers presented in the media. They include traditional, affluent free-market Republicans as well as workers and farmers who are feeling desperate as economic growth and hope for the future seem to be slipping away from them.

At the same time, the Republican Party must also shore up support in Milwaukee’s staunchly Republican “WOW” suburbs—Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington Counties—which have reliably delivered massive turnouts and big margins for Republican candidates.

Less innocently, the Republican strategy includes an aggressive ballot-security program that aims to suppress the votes of people who tend to vote Democratic, building on efforts the state GOP has embraced for years.

Finally, the Republicans are deeply prepared for the large-scale manipulative use of social media to disseminate hundreds of thousands of “micro-targeted” messages to voters, especially in key swing states like Wisconsin. This micro-targeting allows the Trump campaign to inflame voters’ “anger points” with individually tailored messages, including racially charged material and conspiracy theories.

Trump’s teams will need all of these strategies to carry Wisconsin. Trump’s 2016 margin of victory in the state—a mere 22,748 votes—was far too small to give the Republicans confidence about this year’s outcome. Both parties and most analysts see Wisconsin as the nation’s “tipping-point” state in the upcoming November 3 election. That’s why the Democratic Party picked Milwaukee to host its nominating convention, before COVID-19 confounded those plans.

Justin Clark, chief counsel for the Trump campaign, painted the situation starkly to his fellow Republicans:  “If we win Wisconsin, Donald Trump is re-elected. If we don’t win Wisconsin, [he won’t be]. It is the tipping-point state.”

The Democrats are equally convinced that any winning combination of states must include Wisconsin’s ten electoral votes. The Badger State is ground zero in 2020.

Overall, the financial commitment of the Republicans to Wisconsin is certain to be much larger than it was in 2016. An estimated $67 million will likely be spent by both parties, according to Cross Screen Media and Advertising Analytics, with the GOP’s bulging campaign coffers giving it a substantial advantage. This time around, the Republicans will have the money for staff on the ground, for training volunteers, buying up ad time on TV and radio, and legal resources whenever needed.

Back in 2016, the Wisconsin Trump operation was cobbled together quickly in a slap-dash fashion, gaining a cash transfusion only when the possibility of a Trump victory appeared brighter in the fall. Now, the state GOP has the tools for a much more solid operation. “Last time,” Jefferson says, “we were a little late. But we [now] have more staff on the ground than what we’ve had in October in past cycles.”

Wisconsin, Clark told The Guardian, will have 100 get-out-the-vote organizers operating for this election. With the Republicans ideologically committed to the notion that the coronavirus threat was overblown by liberals for political gain, the GOP has moved into door-to-door organizing much sooner and more aggressively this year. On a mid-June weekend, the same weekend Trump’s seventy-fourth birthday was celebrated, Wisconsin Republicans and the Trump Victory organization set up sixty-six campaign events, more than any other state in the nation.

These “leadership-initiative” training events focused on teaching volunteers how to persuade their friends and neighbors, and how to conduct door-to-door canvassing and phone banking.

Meanwhile, due to their concern about spreading COVID-19, the Democrats have been making extensive use of  Zoom and Facebook to continue organizing. The party has been holding eight-week-long workshops for organizers since the start of the Trump Administration.

 “We’ve been organizing year-round for the last three-and-a-half years,” Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler tells The Progressive. “We’ve had regular contact with voters. They are hearing from people they know via Little League, 4-H, or other groups. We’ve got talented organizers with local ties.”

In the end, the election in Wisconsin—which could very well determine whether or not Trump is re-elected—will hinge on how many votes for Biden the Republicans can suppress, and how much of Trump’s base they can turn out.  

The Republican ground game in 2020 will entail a massively increased campaign for “ballot security.” One central element: challenging the validity of voters casting ballots at selected polling places—based on past efforts, this means poll sites in Black and Latinx neighborhoods and at liberal universities—by Republican volunteers who are now being recruited.

These challenges seem designed to generate delays in the voting process and prompt frustrated citizens to head home without voting. Nationally, the GOP has pledged to devote $20 million to its “ballot security” campaign.

“This is nothing like any other campaign. You can see 2016 and 2020 are completely different scenarios, nothing in common.”

The Republicans claim they are simply trying to root out illegitimate ballots cast by impersonators. Yet an elections law expert who wrote about this issue for The Washington Post found only thirty-one credible cases of voter fraud in the entire country between 2000 and 2014, out of more than a billion votes cast.

Republican efforts to reduce the number of opposing voters are also aided by harsh anti-labor laws enacted in Wisconsin over the previous decade. These have fragmented unions’ ability to educate and mobilize members in support of broader working-class interests.

In 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker touched off massive protests and a national furor when he suddenly introduced a sweeping attack on public workers’ rights to meaningful union representation, which was signed into law as Act 10. Walker ultimately succeeded in fracturing the political networks that unions helped maintain in the state.

In 2015, Walker followed up by enacting a Southern- style “right-to-work” bill designed expressly to divide workers, weaken unions, and force down wages. Between Act 10 and the right-to-work law, the Republicans contributed to a substantial drop in union membership, which in turn has diminished the strength of the state Democratic Party.

Between 2009 and 2019, union membership in Wisconsin plummeted from 15.2 percent to 8.1 percent. This has had immense political implications because unions have historically been a central force in spreading political awareness among their members, and in mobilizing public support for pro-worker candidates.  

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, since 1980 right-to-work laws have depressed Democratic presidential vote share by a full 3.5 percent, far more than enough to provide Hillary Clinton with a Wisconsin win in 2016.

Trump has sagged in the polls recently in swing states, including Wisconsin, due to his continuing dismissal of the coronavirus threat even in the face of new spikes in cases; his controversial embrace of the Confederate flag and monuments; and his revival of harsh Nixon-style law-and-order rhetoric. In a Marquette University Law School poll from late June, Trump was trailing Biden by a margin of 49 percent to 41 percent in Wisconsin. Another June poll from The New York Times/Siena College showed Trump down eleven points in the state.

Yet state Republicans say they are undaunted and even “fired up.” Brian Reisinger, a longtime Republican campaign communications specialist based in Madison, Wisconsin, remains skeptical of the data, citing the fact that polling operations including FiveThirtyEight pegged Trump’s odds of winning Wisconsin at just 16 percent on the eve of the 2016 election.

“I would invite pundits to go back four years in their ‘wayback machines’ and look at their projections about the election,” Reisinger said in a July interview. “Four months in politics is an eternity. Things can change fast when you have a candidate as dynamic as Donald Trump.”

Trump’s re-election campaign will be aided by a crucial weapon: the sophisticated and secretive use of delivered “micro-targeted” messages delivered on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere. Micro-targeting involves assembling all the data available on an individual—voting records, consumer spending patterns, and cell phone information—and formulating messages targeted to that voter’s most pressing concerns.

Because the messages are individualized, the often-false or inflammatory content is seen only by a few people, which can keep racially charged or untrue messages from being exposed and refuted, notes Young Mie Kim, a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who specializes in studying social media.

“The secretive targeting of individuals does not appear publicly,” she says. “If untruthful info in these messages would be seen, it would be challenged and could be corrected. But the policies of the Big Tech companies are very far behind the capacity of campaigns on this.”

Brad Parscale, formerly Trump’s campaign manager, has described micro-targeting as “controlling the eyeballs of most places that we needed to win.” He said the campaign is buying a huge number of ads, adjusting scripts slightly to reach very specialized categories of voters. “We made, I think, over 5.9 million ads [to run] between [the] convention and general election and Election Day.”

The Trump campaign, according to an article in The Atlantic by McKay Coppins, “is planning to spend more than $1 billion, and it will be aided by a vast coalition of partisan media, outside political groups, and enterprising freelance operatives.”

The use of micro-targeting represents a major shift in America’s political culture. As Coppins explains, “If candidates once had to shout their campaign promises from a soapbox, micro-targeting allows them to sidle up to millions of voters and whisper personalized messages in their ear.”

Coppins warns that the pro-Trump forces are “poised to wage what could be the most extensive disinformation campaign in U.S. history. Whether or not it succeeds in re-electing the President, the wreckage it leaves behind could be irreparable.”

The micro-targeting technique is already being widely deployed in Wisconsin. Through the use of extensive databases, Republicans can slice and dice bits of personal information to come up with extremely small and defined segments for specific content targeted to individual voters. Since the messages can be so precisely shaped to their audience, they can count on recipients forwarding them to like-minded friends and family members.

For example, the group developed a remarkably narrow audience for a set of messages, as described by political analyst Thomas Edsall in an op-ed for The New York Times. For instance, he notes, the website was able to identify 199,241 Wisconsin Catholics “who’ve been to church at least three times in the last ninety days.” This list can be used to identify a receptive audience for anti-abortion messages coming from both and the Trump campaign.

The data on the 199,241 people was gained through a technique called “geofencing,” which permits social media specialists to trace cell phone information to a specific geographic location like a church service, meeting, or rally. This information can then be combined with other databases to flesh out a fuller portrait of each person, allowing the Republicans to refine their pitch at a granular level.

So a January rally with Donald Trump in Milwaukee gave the Republicans far more than a chance to fire up his most ardent supporters. It also yielded a mother lode of information about those attending.

“Out of more than 20,000 identified voters who came to a recent Trump rally in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 57.9 percent did not have a history of voting for Republicans,” The New York Times reported Parscale as saying. “Remarkably, 4,413 attendees didn’t even vote in the last election—a clear indication that President Trump is energizing Americans who were previously not engaged in politics,” much as he did four years ago.

Parscale, the Times reported, was able to glean that more than 20 percent of people at Trump campaign rallies in Toledo, Ohio, and Hershey, Pennsylvania, were Democrats. And fully 15 percent of the crowd at a rally in Battle Creek, Michigan, had not voted in any of the past four presidential elections. These individuals will surely receive a steady stream of precisely targeted messages.

With Wisconsin highly polarized and deeply purple, Republican efforts to win the election will focus not on persuading the undecided but on mobilizing those who support the President to turn out.

To this end, the party sees non-college-educated white voters as absolutely essential. White people without a four-year degree constitute about 59 percent of the Wisconsin electorate, compared with 45 percent nationally, so their importance in the Badger State is especially pronounced.  

Yet the profile of these voters is far more complex than the media stereotype of resentful white, blue-collar workers sitting around diners wishing for a return to an America of the 1950s, when incomes were rising and people of color were kept in their place. Setting aside the endless stream of interviews recorded in coffee shops, the reality is that Clinton actually won a majority of voters with incomes under $50,000.

Overall in 2016, the Democratic vote fell by a stunning 240,000 votes, compounded by 93,000 potential Black voters in Milwaukee who did not vote. Twenty- three of the state’s seventy-two counties flipped from Obama to Trump. These included workers in “left-behind” communities scarred by large-scale job losses caused by companies shifting operations to low-wage, high-repression nations like China and Mexico.

Shannon Monnat, a rural sociologist and demographer at Syracuse University, has dug into the surprising results in Wisconsin and other Rust Belt states. She found that counties that voted more heavily for Trump than expected were closely correlated with counties that experienced high rates of death caused by drugs, alcohol, and suicide. Opioid abuse, in particular, was a key marker.

Most of these deaths occurred among middle-aged white people who felt shut out of an economy where nearly half of the nation’s employment growth is confined to twenty major cities, central to the global economy. These “diseases of despair” correlated with a remarkable 43 percent of the Republican Party’s gains nationwide over the Democrats in the 2016 election.

A much-less discussed shift toward Trump occurred among what are termed “high-income, low- education” white voters who make up the largest segment of those without four-year degrees. This demographic includes managers, supervisors, skilled workers, store owners, contractors, and the like. These are people who are doing relatively well but feel their life chances are shrinking as higher education becomes increasingly key to economic and social success.

“Polling of pro-Trump voters in Wisconsin in this demographic—lacking a degree but earning above $75,000—shows a 69 percent level of support for Trump,” says Charles Franklin, who runs the Marquette University Law School poll.

There are 459,000 noncollege white males in Wisconsin who did not vote in 2016, according to New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz. Van Mobley, a Republican activist and president of the Thiensville, Wisconsin, village board, believes Trump has a good chance of successfully reaching into that pool.

“Most of those folks will go to Trump,” Mobley says. “He can do even better in base areas. In eastern Wisconsin, they can now see how he governs. He does extremely well with cultural conservatives.”

For Trump to win Wisconsin, the GOP will need a strong turnout in the overwhelmingly Republican white-collar counties around Milwaukee. Affluent and well-educated Waukesha, Washington, and Ozaukee Counties have normally gone about 64 percent Republican in presidential years.

In fact, Franklin says, Waukesha has been one of the GOP’s most “efficient” areas in the nation, coupling high turnouts with overwhelming Republican margins. But Trump’s hard-edged style, coarse language, and attacks on state figures like former Congressmember Paul Ryan, popular among Republicans, proved alienating to many voters in 2016. In the “WOW” counties, as they are known, Trump garnered 25,000 fewer votes than Mitt Romney’s totals just four years earlier, according to a calculation using Ballotpedia data.

 More erosion appeared in these Milwaukee suburbs during the 2018 elections. The WOW counties still produced large GOP margins, but much smaller than in previous election cycles.

Another critical demographic on November 3 will be women voters. National data highlighted a thirteen-point shift toward the Democrats among women voters in 2018, including those without a college education.

“Suburban women is [sic] where he has a challenge,” Senator Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota, told The New York Times. “I think the biggest problem that he has with suburban women is the part that so many in his base like about him. His rhetoric, his punching down at his opponents. It’s so different than anything they’ve seen.”

James Wigderson, editor of RightWisconsin, a conservative website that is often critical of Trump, agrees that the President’s standing with suburban women is tenuous: “We’re all just one Donald Trump tweet away from things changing.”

Brandon Scholz, a former Republican Party state director and now president and chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Grocers Association, also sees a highly volatile election this year.

 “Nothing is the same,” Scholz surmises. “This is nothing like any other campaign. You can see 2016 and 2020 are completely different scenarios, nothing in common.”

Adding to the unpredictability is the COVID-19 pandemic. An unprecedented number of state residents voted by mail-in ballot in the April election, which saw the ouster of an incumbent conservative state supreme court justice. Republicans fought to hold the election despite safety concerns, and continue to resist state efforts to allow more voting options.

But all in all, Mark Jefferson likes the state party’s chances of delivering Wisconsin to Trump.

“We’re organized in every part of the state,” he says. “We have such strong support in sparsely populated counties that are rural and have small towns. And we believe we can mobilize low-propensity voters” who rarely vote.

The question is, can the supporters of Joe Biden muster that kind of enthusiasm?

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