COLFAX, Wis. — President Donald Trump came to Wisconsin late last month to boast about the state’s unemployment rate, which has been at or near 3% for more than a year. “It’s never been this low before. Ever, ever, ever,” he said. (Fact check: true.)
It’s a message that strikes a chord with Bubba Benson, who lives paycheck to paycheck but says that is still better than where he was a few years ago after getting laid off from a shoe warehouse “when all the jobs went to Mexico.” His new job at a plastics manufacturing plant covers the bills and pays good overtime. There are even a few extra bucks in his paycheck now, which he credits to Trump’s tax cut.
“It didn’t let me go out and buy a new house,” Benson said as he leaned on the bar at the Outhouse, a watering hole on Main Street in this village of about 1,100 people. “But that wasn’t what it was for.”
As 21 candidates compete to become the Democratic Party’s nominee in 2020, Trump is running on the strongest economy of any president seeking re-election since Bill Clinton in 1996, and arguably since Richard Nixon in 1972. Job creation is strong and last month the unemployment rate dipped to its lowest point in half a century, 3.6%.
The robust financial numbers have emboldened Trump to adopt a tough stance on trade with China this week, and he imposed steep new tariffs Friday. Trump is confident the economy can withstand retaliatory action from China, but farmers and manufacturers in this region are among those most likely to be hurt by increased tariffs on American goods.
Still, if the economy remains strong, it could be Trump’s best argument as he tries to replicate his narrow path to victory in the Electoral College in 2016, which ran straight through rural areas like Colfax in northwestern Wisconsin. Whatever faults people attribute to the president personally, even his critics say he could easily retain the loyalty of swing voters like Benson — those who see an economy that is stable, robust and meaningfully, if marginally, benefiting their lives.
The message of a thriving economy — assuming Trump sticks to it, as aides and allies have been urging him to do — could leave Democrats especially vulnerable when coupled with Republicans’ relentless attacks on their rivals as radicals who hold extreme positions on health care, abortion and the environment.
“Whoever our nominee turns out to be, they will end up with high negatives come the election,” said Diane Feldman, a Democratic pollster who has worked in Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest.
She believes that Wisconsin — where 22,000 votes separated Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016 — “could go either way” in next year’s election, and could favor Trump if voters see their decision as a choice between one candidate whose beliefs and motivations they do not fully trust and another whose flaws they have come to accept.
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“There isn’t the anger and anxiety there was before when plants were shutting down and people were losing their pensions,” Feldman added.
For 2020 the president will also have help from a pinpoint voter-targeting operation, which the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee have built in battleground states like Wisconsin. They have collected more than 4,000 points of data on potential voters — everything from whether they have a hunting license to what kind of car they drive to their magazine subscriptions.
“You can’t have gaps anywhere,” said Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party. “And with the economy going so strong, people are going to be more open to President Trump than they ever have been.”
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Despite the good economic numbers, Trump will be trying to achieve something no president has done in modern times: win re-election without ever reaching 50 percent in Gallup’s job approval rating by this point in his first term.
Strategists in both parties say it will be exceedingly difficult for Trump if his approval rating is much below 46 percent, which is the share of the popular vote he received in 2016. Trump hit 46 percent in Gallup’s survey this month, a high point for him.
“Unless his job approval rating goes up and stays up, he once more can win only by getting people who do not like him or approve of him to vote for him,” said Henry Olsen, a conservative scholar on voting patterns at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “But that vastly understates how hard it will be for him,” Olsen added, “because most polls show that those who dislike him strongly dislike him.”
The economic recovery that began under Barack Obama has by some measures accelerated under Trump. The United States has added jobs for 103 consecutive months, a record; wages are rising faster than consumer prices; and in July the economic expansion will become the longest on record.
Still, Trump’s strategists and their allies in outside groups recognize that to rely too heavily on a factor as unpredictable and uneven as the economy — a year and a half away from Election Day — would be foolish. So they are bolstering their efforts in Wisconsin and elsewhere with more narrowly tailored operations to turn out specific groups, like conservatives who find Trump’s agenda appealing but do not regularly vote.
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Most independent economists expect growth to cool this year, and there are already signs that the rebound in manufacturing jobs that characterized Trump’s first two years in office could be fading.
Sitting on the other side of the horseshoe-shaped bar from Benson at the Outhouse was Scott Johnson, a union representative for construction workers. Johnson said he was skeptical of Trump’s handling of the economy and thought it could very likely deteriorate.
“Like I always say to people: What’s in your hand now and what’s going to be in your hand on down the line are not the same,” Johnson said.
“I keep pounding these guys’ heads that it only looks good now,” he added.
But he conceded that his pleading with his friends and co-workers has mostly fallen on deaf ears and that the prospect of a second term for Trump is something he considers very real. “Do I have a feeling he could get re-elected? Yeah, I do,” he said.
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The case that the president is making about Wisconsin is a regional version of the argument Republicans hope to make nationally to the crucial bloc of voters who are uneasy with the president’s style and tone but still persuadable.
The White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, referred to this approach early this month, telling a conference hosted by the investor and junk-bond pioneer Michael Milken that the economy will be a bigger driver in the election than personality.
“You hate to sound like a cliché, but are you better off than you were four years ago?” Mulvaney said.
“I think that’s easy,” he added. “People will vote for somebody they don’t like if they think it’s good for them.”
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Trump and Republicans could be benefiting from a new prism through which voters are viewing the economy. The recent growth may not be reaching the levels of the expansions under Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan. But political pollsters say that Americans have come to accept “good enough” as a substitute for “great.”
The belt of counties that straddle the Wisconsin border with Minnesota and Iowa and extend south along the Mississippi River could help tip the 2020 election, as they did in 2016. They are the rare places where the highly tribal nature of today’s politics is less entrenched and where a voter like Benson can hold seemingly contradictory opinions on candidates. In 2016, he said his first choice for president was Sen. Bernie Sanders. He could not bring himself to vote for Clinton — “not after what she did to Bernie” — so he voted for Trump.
But he also said he did not support Wisconsin’s most recent Republican governor, Scott Walker, who was ousted last year by a Democrat in a race that was decided by 1 percentage point. Walker, who aggressively sought to curb union power, “wanted to screw everybody,” Benson said, explaining the inconsistencies in his politics.
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Across the region, more than three dozen counties in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa — plus another nine nearby in Illinois — voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 before flipping to Trump in 2016. But in Wisconsin, nearly all of those counties flipped again in 2018 and voted for the Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives, including Dunn County, where Colfax is.
There are other, more recent troubling signs for Republicans among these independent-minded voters. A survey released this past week by the Voter Study Group, which includes analysts and scholars from across the ideological spectrum, reported a 19-point drop in Trump’s favorable rating with these so-called Obama-Trump voters.
Though 66 percent of them still have a favorable view of the president, the survey noted that even slight shifts among this group, which comprised 9% of the electorate in 2016, could make the difference in 2020.
Whether Trump is disciplined enough to stay on message about the economy is another question. Even as the most recent jobs report bolstered his case, he diverted attention from it with a controversial phone call to President Vladimir Putin of Russia and then decried a ruling that overturned the result of the Kentucky Derby, attributing it to political correctness.
Many Republicans close to the White House recall the days before last year’s midterms when instead of trumpeting the economy he peddled divisive warnings about a Central American migrant caravan.
But the president’s rhetoric on issues like immigration may do as much to rally the opposition as his own base. And if turnout is higher in 2020 than in 2016, as many expect it to be, Republicans acknowledge that they will have to do more than just hold onto Trump’s committed voters.
“Simple math: Trump has to find more,” said Matt Batzel, executive director of American Majority, a group that trains conservative activists. Its work in a Wisconsin Supreme Court race last month helped elect a conservative candidate in an unexpected win that jolted Democrats.
“Unless there’s another Hillary Clinton who doesn’t campaign here,” he added, “which doesn’t seem likely to happen.”