Trump's hopes fade in Wisconsin as 'greatest economy' boast unravels

Photo: Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images
Gross, cruel, chaotic. Donald Trump was called many things. Even some of his followers had a hard time grasping the darker aspects of his personality. Until recently, however, they trusted the president on one important issue: the economy.
But with only 16 days to go before the election, there are clear signs that Trump's claims of "creating the biggest economy we have ever had in our country's history" are fading.
Related: "He pays attention to people like us": Trump's message finds fans in Wisconsin
Perhaps nowhere is Trump more worrying than in Wisconsin.
Losing Wisconsin ended Hilary Clinton's presidency in 2016. As we know, she failed to prevail, suspecting a victory that came from Trump's promises to end unfair trade practices that had harmed the state dairy industry and job restoration in manufacturing was withdrawn.
By February, Trump could have confidently boasted that he had kept his promises. Unemployment had fallen to record lows in the state, production was returning - albeit at the same snail's pace as under Obama. The headlines looked good. Then came the coronavirus - a disease that has now ravaged the state and has subsequently exposed the fault lines under those headlines.
The virus and economy now appear to have turned into a terrible hybrid, and the fragile recovery from the initial spike in infections is now threatened by new spikes in infections. Last week, Wisconsin reported 3,747 cases in one day, the highest level since the outbreak and more than the California daily average, a state of six times 5.8 million in Wisconsin.
“The economy is always big. It's only been this year that it's so closely linked to the pandemic that it's difficult to separate, "said Mark Graul, a Republican strategist who led George W. Bush's 2004 re-election race in Wisconsin.
If the pandemic had never happened and the economy was buzzing, "that's all President Trump would talk about" - but now just someone is talking about the virus and what it is doing to the economy.
A recent CNN poll found that Trump and his rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, were who would do better with the economy at 49% per person among registered voters. 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. In the polls, Biden is currently well 6.5% ahead of the state, but in a year when nothing else can happen until November 3.
In this volatile environment, progressives have won voters and pondered the fragility of the economy that Trump had hoped would re-elect him.
Earlier this month, advocacy group Opportunity Wisconsin hosted a town hall with Wisconsinites from that state talking about how they view Trump's economy. It wasn't a pretty picture.
For an hour, Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin held a discussion with dairy farmers and cheese makers about friends and neighbors who had already ceased business before the pandemic began. University of Wisconsin history professor Selika Ducksworth-Lawton spoke insistently about how the virus has devastated color communities in the state. “For marginalized communities, this has been terrible. There have been some people who have almost called it ethnic cleansing, "she said. "We have failed in the most basic requirements of a nation-state."
Related: "Don't Take Black Voters For granted": Milwaukee Leaders and Activists Warn Democrats
But perhaps the clearest example of the problems that preceded and sadly highlighted the pandemic was 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. Me and my husband are just trying to make life vibrate for us and our two children," said Swenson.
Even before the pandemic, she said she felt she was getting very little help. Early childhood educators in Wisconsin make about $ 10 an hour and receive no benefits. "We don't get a retirement account. We don't care what Wall Street is doing. We don't invest in it. We try to pay our rent, to pay for food."
A third of Wisconsin's early childhood educators receive federal aid "because it is so difficult for us to do it."
Trump's biggest political achievement - a $ 1.5 billion tax cut billed as a "middle class miracle" - actually increased her family's taxes, she said. "It didn't help us. That's the reality."
And the Trump administration's response to the pandemic has been "terrifying," she said. She believes it's no coincidence that rates in Wisconsin have risen since children and students went back to school - a move that came after Trump said children couldn't spread the coronavirus, an opinion widely debunked has been. "It didn't have to be that bad," she said.
Opportunity Wisconsin, backed by the progressive advocacy group Hub Project, has achieved remarkable success in turning people's minds about Trump's economic success through targeted messaging. But there were major obstacles to overcome, and not just because it is notoriously difficult to change opinions.
Republicans have been remarkably successful in their economic news, not least in Wisconsin. Since Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party has promoted the idea that there is a simple formula for economic success: lower taxes, less regulation, and a smaller government. That message, repeated over and over again for 40 years, helped Wisconsin move from a bastion of progressive politics to an anti-union right-wing economic experimentation laboratory, led by former governor Scott Walker and former House Speaker Paul Ryan and was supported by the Koch brothers.
Trump laid the foundation stone for a new Foxconn factory in June 2018 with the then Governor Scott Walker and the Chairman of Foxconn, Terry Gou. Photo: Evan Vucci / AP
That right shift derailed in 2018 with the fall of Walker and the appointment of Democrat Tony Evers after a coordinated effort by progressives to depose the Republican star.
Opportunity Wisconsin began with a poll of 27,000 voters who identified the group as Wisconsinites who agreed with conservative economic ideas - but had doubts about the direction the economy was going and who were left behind.
With the study, the group targeted 500,000 people who were split into two groups. You received targeted messages that focused on key economic metrics, profiling stories from real Wisconsinites struggling, people who had lost jobs under Trump, farms and livelihoods. All the messages that underscored the problems that had hurt people in the state before the pandemic. A control group that received no messages was used to measure how successful the effort had been.
A follow-up poll found that among the voters who received the targeted messages:
Beliefs that Trump's policies helped Wisconsin fell 8.3%.
Trump's tax bill approval for 2017 fell 5.2%.
Belief that Trump's economy works for everyone fell 3.6%.
Trump's approval of the economy fell 2.3%.
Those are remarkable numbers in any social experiment, and especially in a state where Trump won by such a small margin.
Dana Bye, campaign leader for the Hub project, believes changing focus has helped change people's minds. "Nationally and in Wisconsin, people look at the stock market and the employment numbers and think this is the economy. But often, their personal experiences are not reflected in those macro characters," she said.
Related: US passes 8 million coronavirus cases as death toll nears 220,000
Adjusted for inflation, Wisconsin wages rose only 73 ¢ in 40 years, Bye said. "That's not a statistic you hear often. Instead, we hear about GDP or the stock market."
"The big challenge in discussing the economy is that people don't look past those big macro numbers. The pandemic has crystallized the idea that there is an economy for the rich and one for the workers."
If enough people get that message, Trump's greatest strength in Wisconsin could be his greatest weakness.

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