It was a long time coming, but Wisconsin seems to have finally regained its “key battleground state” status in this year’s presidential election. At least for the moment, anyway. For much of this election cycle, we’ve been missing out on the action, a second tier state that Democrats believed would be theirs on Election Day, never seriously in jeopardy.
If it takes two to tango, Wisconsin has been missing a dance partner. While Republican nominee Donald Trump has been to Wisconsin five times, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton hasn’t been here once. It might be argued that given Clinton’s struggles in Wisconsin—a crushing primary loss in 2008 to then-Sen. Barack Obama and a 2016 April primary defeat which saw her lose 71 of 72 counties to Sen. Bernie Sanders—surrogates like Sanders and Chelsea Clinton might be more effective campaigners than the nominee herself. Whatever the reason, Clinton has focused her personal attention on other states. Her campaign only recently began running ads in Wisconsin, a true indicator of a state’s relative importance in the election.
But if you believe recent public opinion surveys in the first tier battleground states of North Carolina, Florida, and Ohio, the race has tightened considerably. Wednesday, Real Clear Politics released its latest Electoral College “No Toss Ups” Map. Using the latest state-by-state polling, Clinton would squeeze out the narrowest of victories in the Electoral College, 273 votes for her, 265 for Trump.
And that’s why Wisconsin and its 10 Electoral College votes suddenly matter. Again. You need 270 votes to win, and under at least one scenario, Wisconsin could be the state to put Trump over the top. Let that sink in for a moment. Donald Trump needs Wisconsin, the state that rejected him in the April GOP primary. The state where influential conservative media figures still refuse to support him.
And then there’s the Marquette Law School Poll released on Wednesday. It showed Trump trailing 46%-40% in Wisconsin. That, despite the same poll showing Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson running neck and neck against former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold. So it’s possible the Trump campaign might focus more on Michigan or Pennsylvania in the remaining days of the campaign, meaning our “key battleground state” status might be fleeting.
Then again, Trump could decide it’s worth making a stand in Wisconsin. It’s easy to understand the allure. First, there’s a huge potential cache of Republican votes in the WOW counties—Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington—still available to Trump. But so far, the Law School Poll has shown the GOP nominee struggling to win over voters in the Milwaukee suburbs, an area that went overwhelmingly for Ted Cruz in the April primary. Given his strong performance in the Green Bay market, Trump may not need to replicate the 68% -32% percent margin Mitt Romney had over President Barack Obama in the WOW counties in 2012. What he can’t afford is to have a dramatic drop off in a part of the state that has been as reliably Republican as any region in the country.
Second, Johnson’s showing in the Law School Poll offers hope for Trump. The Republican incumbent’s performance in the WOW counties has been consistently better than Trump’s. Tuesday night in Eau Claire, Johnson made his first campaign appearance with Trump. He was joined by Governor Scott Walker and Congressman Sean Duffy, a show of support that essentially told reluctant Republicans that it’s okay to cast a ballot for Trump.
Third, the state Republican Party has built a battle-tested get-out-the-vote operation that rivals any in the country. Party officials believe if polling has the race within two or three points by Election Day, their GOTV operation can make up the difference.
And finally, Trump seems to genuinely believe that this election will be “Brexit times five.” In Trump’s world view, the pollsters and pundits aren’t accurately capturing the deep disillusionment found in places like Wisconsin, with its older, white, blue collar population.
The path to victory for Trump is a narrow one, so winning Wisconsin appears to be as good a bet as any. That won’t be easy, but it could mean we’re a key battleground state again. If only for a few days.