Coarse, cruel, chaotic. Donald Trump has been called a lot of things. Even some of his supporters have had a hard time embracing the darker aspects of his personality. Until recently they have, however, trusted the president on one one vital issue: the economy.
But with just 16 days to go until the election, there are clear signs that Trump’s claims to have created the “greatest economy we’ve ever had in the history of our country” are unravelling.
Perhaps nowhere is that more worrying for Trump than in Wisconsin.
Losing Wisconsin ended Hilary Clinton’s presidential chances in 2016. Famously she didn’t campaign there, presuming a win that was snatched from her by Trump’s promises to end unfair trade practices that had hurt the state’s dairy industry and to bring back manufacturing jobs.
Until February, Trump could have confidently boasted that he had made good on his promises. Unemployment had fallen to record lows in the state, manufacturing was coming back – albeit at the same, snail-paced crawl that it had under Obama. The headline figures looked good. Then came the coronavirus – a disease that is now ravaging the state and has, in its wake, exposed the fault lines beneath those headline figures.
The virus and the economy now seem to have morphed into some hideous hybrid, and the fragile recovery that followed the first peak in infections is now being 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 California’s daily average, a state with six times Wisconsin’s 5.8 million population.
“The economy is always big. It’s just this year it is so intertwined with the pandemic that is hard to separate them,” said Mark Graul, a Republican strategist who ran George W Bush’s re-election race in Wisconsin in 2004.
Had the pandemic never happened and the economy been humming along, “that’s all President Trump would be talking about” – but now all anyone is talking about is the virus and what it is doing to the economy.
A recent CNN poll found Trump and his rival, former vice-president Joe Biden, tied among registered voters at 49% apiece on who would handle the economy better. Back in May, 54% of registered voters said Trump would handle the economy better, compared with 42% for Biden.
Graul expects a close race. Trump beat Clinton in Wisconsin by just 0.77% in 2016. The polls currently have Biden ahead by a clear 6.5% in the state, but in a year that feels like no other anything can happen between now and 3 November.
In this volatile environment, progressives have been making gains with voters, reflecting on the fragility of the economy Trump had hoped would re-elect him.
Earlier this month, the advocacy group Opportunity Wisconsin held a town hall with Wisconsinites from around that state, who talked about how they see Trump’s economy. It wasn’t a pretty picture.
For an hour on Zoom, the Democratic senator Tammy Baldwin led a discussion with dairy farmers and cheese makers talking about friends and neighbors going out of business even before the pandemic began. University of Wisconsin history professor Selika Ducksworth-Lawton spoke powerfully about how the virus has devastated communities of color in the state. “For marginalized communities, this has been awful. There have been some people who have referred to it almost as an ethnic cleansing,” she said. “We have failed at the most basic requirements of a nation state.”
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But perhaps the clearest example of the problems that preceded the pandemic, and have been sadly highlighted by it, came from Kyra Swenson, an early childhood educator from Madison. “I’m a teacher, I’m not a business owner. I don’t have a lot of wealth. It’s just me and my husband trying to make life swing for ourselves and our two kids,” said Swenson.
Even before the pandemic, she said she felt she was getting very little help. Early childhood educators make about $10 an hour in Wisconsin and receive no benefits. “We don’t get a retirement account. We don’t give two hoots about what Wall Street is doing. We are not investing in that. We are trying to pay our rent, pay for food.”
A third of Wisconsin’s early childhood educators are on federal assistance “because that is how hard it is for us to make it.”
Trump’s biggest policy achievement – a $1.5tn tax cut that was billed as a “middle-class miracle” – actually increased her family’s taxes, she said. “It didn’t benefit us. That’s the reality.”
And the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic has been “terrifying”, she said. She thinks it is no coincidence that Wisconsin’s rates have spiked since children and college students went back to school – a move that came after Trump said children could not spread the coronavirus, an opinion that has been widely debunked. “It didn’t have to be this bad,” she said.
Opportunity Wisconsin, aided by the progressive advocacy organization the Hub Project, has had remarkable success turning opinion around on Trump’s economic success through targeted messaging. But it has had big obstacles to overcome, not just because changing opinions is notoriously hard.
The Republicans have been remarkably successful in their economic messaging, not least 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. That message, repeated over and over for 40 years, helped Wisconsin shift from a bastion of progressive politics to a union-bashing laboratory for rightwing economic experiments led by Scott Walker, the former governor, and Paul Ryan, the former House speaker, and backed by the Koch brothers.
That rightward shift was derailed in 2018 with the ousting of Walker and the appointment of Democrat Tony Evers after a coordinated effort by progressives to unseat the Republican star.
What Opportunity Wisconsin did was start with a survey of 27,000 voters, which the group identified as Wisconsinites who were sympathetic to conservative economic ideas – but had doubts about the direction the economy was taking, and who was being left behind.
Using the research, the group targeted 500,000 people who were split into two groups. One received targeted messages that delved behind the top-line economic figures, profiling stories of real Wisconsinites who were struggling, people who had lost jobs, farms, livelihoods under Trump. All messages that underlined the issues that were hurting people in the state even before the pandemic struck. A control group who received no messages was used to measure how successful the effort had been.
A follow-up survey revealed that among those voters who received the targeted messages:
Belief that Trump’s policies helped Wisconsin fell 8.3%.
Approval of Trump’s 2017 tax law fell 5.2%.
Belief that Trump’s economy is working for everyone fell 3.6%.
Approval of Trump on the economy fell 2.3%.
Those are remarkable numbers in any social experiment, and especially in a state that Trump won by such a thin margin.
Dana Bye, campaign director for the Hub Project, thinks a change of focus was instrumental in changing people’s minds. “Nationally and in Wisconsin people look at the stock market and the jobs figures and think that’s the economy. But often their personal experiences are not reflected in those macro figures,” she said.
Adjusted for inflation, wages in Wisconsin have gone up just 73¢ in 40 years, said Bye. “That’s not a statistic you hear often. Instead we hear about GDP or the stock market.”
“The big challenge when talking about the economy is that people don’t look beyond these big, macro numbers. The pandemic has crystalized the idea that there is one economy for the rich and another for working folk.”
If that message gets through to enough people, what was once Trump’s biggest strength in Wisconsin could be his biggest weakness.