MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin Democrats, stung by President Donald Trump's narrow win four years ago, are confident the lessons they learned will ensure he doesn't do it again.
But Republicans say civil unrest that followed a police shooting in Kenosha, and Trump's “law and order” message, will help him win over the crucial white suburban voters he needs to capture a second term.
With less than two months to go until the election, the presidential race is focused on Wisconsin and other battleground states that will likely determine the winner. Republicans and Democrats in Wisconsin expect another close race, just like three of the past five presidential elections that were decided by less than a point in the swing state.
“This is going to be a fistfight in the mud until the very end, scrapping for every vote,” said Republican strategist Brian Reisinger.
Democrat Joe Biden has led Trump by 4 to 6 points in the past four Marquette University Law School polls of likely Wisconsin voters between May and September. Attitudes didn't change this month even after both Biden and Trump visited Kenosha, where the Aug. 23 shooting of Blake sparked three nights of protests and unrest that culminated with the shootings of three demonstrators, two of whom died. A 17-year-old Trump supporter is accused of the shootings.
The Biden lead is consistent with where Hillary Clinton was at this point four years ago. She went on to lose by fewer than 23,000 votes.
While the coronavirus pandemic largely grounded the candidates for much of the spring and summer, both sides are increasing their travels to Wisconsin. Trump was in Kenosha last week to thank police for their response to protests after a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man. Biden came to Kenosha two days later, meeting with members of Blake's family and holding a community discussion about the shooting and racial tensions. Their running mates later made their own visits.
Clinton never campaigned in Wisconsin after losing the state's primary in 2016. Democrats say she was overly confident, given Barack Obama's two big wins in Wisconsin. Ben Wikler, the Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman who took over after Clinton's defeat, said the party has been working to avoid a repeat.
“When the results came in on election night in 2016, the ground gave way and we were in a free fall,” Wikler said. “Starting the next day we started figuring out how this happened and how it can never happen again.”
Democrats launched a year-round organizing program in 2017, building neighborhood teams to interact with voters on a more personal level. Wikler said those efforts paid off with victories for every statewide office in 2018 as well as Wisconsin Supreme Court wins in 2018 and 2020.
Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Andrew Hitt said the Trump campaign built its infrastructure in the state earlier and more aggressively than four years ago, with up to four times the number of staff.
Both Biden and Trump are fighting hard for white suburban Milwaukee voters, who have become less reliably Republican in recent years.
“The suburban vote is something (Trump is) working to get a handle on,” Reisinger, the GOP strategist, said. “The president has begun to get his footing with the suburban issue but needs to continue.”
Hitt said Trump needs to focus not just on the Milwaukee suburbs but an even broader area reaching farther beyond the three counties that have traditionally been seen as the key to victory. Republicans opened their first office in the city of Milwaukee and will be aggressive about going after votes in the Democratic stronghold, Hitt said.
If Biden can shave off enough Republican voters in the suburbs and broader southeastern Wisconsin area, together with the heavily Democratic urban centers of Milwaukee and Madison, there aren’t enough Trump voters in the rest of the state to get him reelected. It’s a formula that other candidates followed in 2018 when Democrats won every statewide office.
The key is reaching the “sensible, moderate, middle-of-the-road vote,” said former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. Doing that is Biden's “great strength,” said Doyle, who has known Biden for 30 years.
Republicans say Trump's law-and-order message is effective for moderate voters who saw the unrest in Kenosha and worry it could spread.
Kelly Ruh, a Republican in the Green Bay area who is the party's chairwoman in the 8th District, said fears about public safety have overtaken coronavirus concerns. The district is a conservative area being targeted by both sides.
“We have to feel safe in our own communities,” Ruh said.
Trump needs to send the message not only that he is the one to keep communities safe, but also handle the coronavirus and lead the country into prosperity, said Reisinger, the Republican strategist.
“He has to show that he’s a man of action who is in touch with the issues that suburban people are concerned about,” Reisinger said. “He’s begun to do that in the last couple weeks. They need to do a helluva lot more of it."