Choarse, cruel, chaotic. Donald Trump has been called a lot of things. Even some of his followers have struggled to embrace the darker sides of his personality. Until recently, however, they trusted the president on a vital issue: the economy.
But just 16 days before the election, there are clear signs that Trump’s claims that he created “the biggest economy we’ve ever had in our country’s history” is collapsing.
Nowhere is this perhaps more worrying for Trump than in Wisconsin.
Losing Wisconsin ended Hilary Clinton’s presidential chances in 2016. She famously did not campaign there, presuming a victory wrested from her by Trump’s promises to end unfair business practices that had harmed the state’s dairy industry and brought back manufacturing jobs.
Until February, Trump could have boasted with confidence that he had kept his promises. Unemployment had fallen to record highs in the state, manufacturing was returning – but at the same snail pace as under Obama. The headline numbers looked good. Then came the coronavirus – a disease that is now ravaging the state and which, in its wake, has exposed the loopholes under those headline numbers.
The virus and the economy now appear to have turned into a hideous hybrid, and the fragile recovery that followed the first spike in infections is now threatened by new spikes in infections. Last week, Wisconsin reported 3,747 cases in one day, its highest level since the outbreak, and more than the daily average for California, a state with six times 5.8 million people.
“The economy is still great. It’s just this year that it’s so linked to the pandemic that it’s hard to separate them, ”said Mark Graul, a Republican strategist who led the race for re-election of George W. Bush in Wisconsin in 2004.
If the pandemic had never happened and the economy was buzzing, “that’s all President Trump would talk about” – but now all we’re talking about is the virus and what it’s doing there. the economy.
A recent CNN poll found that Trump and his rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, were tied among registered voters at 49% each in determining who would run the economy best. In May, 54% of registered voters said Trump would run the economy better, compared to 42% for Biden.
Graul expects a close race. Trump beat Clinton in Wisconsin by just 0.77% in 2016. Polls currently have Biden ahead 6.5% in the state, but in a year that looks like nothing else can happen. by November 3.
In this volatile environment, progressives made gains with voters, reflecting the fragile economy that Trump had hoped to re-elect him.
Earlier this month, advocacy group Opportunity Wisconsin held a town hall with Wisconsinians in that state, who spoke about how they view Trump’s economy. It wasn’t a pretty picture.
For an hour on Zoom, Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin led a discussion with dairy farmers and cheese makers talking about bankrupt friends and neighbors before the pandemic even began. University of Wisconsin history professor Selika Ducksworth-Lawton spoke emphatically about how the virus has devastated communities of color in the state. “For marginalized communities it has been terrible. There were people who almost called it ethnic cleansing, ”she said. “We have failed the most basic demands of a nation state.”
But perhaps the clearest example of the issues leading up to the pandemic, and which were sadly highlighted by it, came from Kyra Swenson, an early childhood educator from Madison. “I am a teacher, I am not a business owner. I don’t have much wealth. It’s just me and my husband trying to make a difference for us and our two kids, ”Swenson said.
Even before the pandemic, she said she thought she was receiving very little help. Early childhood educators earn about $ 10 an hour in Wisconsin and receive no benefits. “We don’t have a retirement account. We’re not talking about what Wall Street is doing. We are not investing in it. We are trying to pay our rent, to pay for food.
One-third of early childhood educators in Wisconsin receive federal support “because that’s how hard it is for us to get there.”
Trump’s biggest political achievement – a $ 1.5 billion tax cut that was touted as a “middle class miracle” – actually raised his family’s taxes, she said. . “It didn’t benefit us. It is reality.
And the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic has been “terrifying,” she said. She thinks it’s no coincidence that Wisconsin’s rates have risen since children and students returned to school – a move that came after Trump said children couldn’t spread the coronavirus , an opinion that has been widely denied. “It couldn’t be that bad,” she said.
To change the mentalities
Opportunity Wisconsin, aided by the progressive advocacy organization The Hub Project, has had remarkable success in turning opinion on Trump’s economic success through targeted messaging. But he had some big hurdles to overcome, not just because changing his mind is notoriously difficult.
Republicans have had remarkable success in their economic messages, especially in Wisconsin. Since Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party has promulgated the idea that there is a simple formula for economic success: lower taxes, less regulation, and smaller government. This message, repeated over and over again for 40 years, has helped Wisconsin move from a bastion of progressive politics to a lab of denigrating unions for right-wing economic experiments led by former governor Scott Walker and Paul Ryan. , the former Speaker of the House, and supported by the Koch brothers.
That shift to the right was derailed in 2018 with Walker’s ouster and the appointment of Democrat Tony Evers after a coordinated effort by Progressives to topple the Republican star.
What Opportunity Wisconsin did was start with a survey of 27,000 voters, whom the group identified as Wisconsinites who favored conservative economic ideas – but had doubts about where the economy is heading and who was left over.
Using the research, the group targeted 500,000 people who were divided into two groups. One of them received targeted messages that explored major economic numbers, depicting stories of real struggling Wisconsinians, people who had lost jobs, farms, livelihoods under Trump. All the posts that pointed out the issues that were hurting people in the state before the pandemic even hit. A control group that received no message was used to measure the success of the effort.
A follow-up survey found that among voters who received the targeted messages:
- Belief that Trump’s policies have helped Wisconsin has fallen 8.3%.
- Trump’s approval of the 2017 tax law fell 5.2%.
The belief that Trump’s economy works for everyone has fallen 3.6%.
Trump’s endorsement of the economy fell 2.3%.
These are remarkable numbers in any social experiment, and especially in a state Trump won on such a small margin.
Dana Bye, campaign manager for The Hub project, believes that a shift in focus has helped change attitudes. “Nationally and in Wisconsin, people look at the stock market and employment numbers and think it’s the economy. But often their personal experiences are not reflected in these macro numbers, ”she said.
Adjusted for inflation, wages in Wisconsin have only increased by 73 ¢ in 40 years, Bye said. “It’s not a statistic you hear often. Rather, we hear about the GDP or the stock market. “
“The big challenge when it comes to economics is that people don’t look past these big macro numbers. The pandemic has crystallized the idea that there is an economy for the rich and another for the workers.
If that message reaches enough people, what was once Trump’s greatest strength in Wisconsin could be his greatest weakness.