Political Flux in Southwestern Wisconsin Offers Surprises, Journalist Finds

Posted on Categories Lubar Center, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, Speakers at Marquette

Don’t make assumptions. Every journalist knows that assumptions can lead you astray.

So if you’re talking with five guys in Richland County in southwestern Wisconsin about their guns and chain saws, you might guess they voted for Donald Trump for president a year ago. Wrong for all five of them, Craig Gilbert, the Washington bureau chief of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, found during a recent reporting trip.

Gilbert found that a lot of assumptions some might make about the political views and voting patterns of people in the largely rural, largely white, and not wealthy part of Wisconsin were wrong. Many communities in southwestern Wisconsin voted for Barack Obama for president in 2008 and 2012 and then voted for Trump in 2016. The views of people Gilbert interviewed in recent weeks remain in flux about Trump, amid a lot of continuing dissatisfaction with the way the political system operates (or doesn’t operate) in Washington.

In an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program Tuesday in the Lubar Center at Eckstein Hall, Gilbert described what he heard from people in a part of Wisconsin that has attracted national and even international attention for the way voters swung toward Trump.

The program followed publication on Nov. 12 of a story about his reporting trip in the Journal Sentinel. The story kicked off “State of Flux: Wisconsin in the Age of Trump,” a series of stories Gilbert is writing as a Lubar Fellow for Public Policy Research at Marquette Law School.

Gilbert told Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, and a large audience, that among the people he spoke with in southwestern Wisconsin, more said their presidential votes in 2016 were motivated by dislike of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton than by their like of Trump.

Gilbert said that while presidential candidates in 2000 and 2004 campaigned heavily in rural Wisconsin, including in the areas he visited for his current story, Clinton never appeared in Wisconsin after the Democratic convention in 2016, and her absence helped convince many of the people he talked to that she didn’t care about their concerns. Trump did not come to southwestern Wisconsin, but visited Wisconsin several times and people thought he spoke to the frustration they felt with the national political scene.

“There’s kind of a broad frustration with the political paralysis they see and frustration with the political culture,” Gilbert said.

A year after the election, there is a wide range of opinion about Trump among people who voted for him, Gilbert said. Some are critical of his performance or Twitter practices, some blame other factors (Congress, the media, others) for how little has gotten done. And the political climate remains changeable.

Gilbert said the next story he is working on as part of his Lubar fellowship will focus on the political status of Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House who is a Republican congressman representing southeastern Wisconsin. Gilbert said the pieces he will do during the fellowship will run from time to time, rather than in one series.

To read Gilbert’s southwestern Wisconsin piece in the Journal Sentinel, click here. To view video of the “On the Issues” program, click here.

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