Politics

Wisconsin's Kenosha County shows why hoping for a last-minute shake-up could be perilous for Trump

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump's chances of defeating former Vice President Joe Biden on Election Day are growing slimmer every day that passes without a major shake-up that could boost him in the polls.
  • A look at Kenosha County, Wisconsin, provides an illustration of the difficulty that Trump faces.
  • "It's hard to imagine something that would change the race at this point," said one expert.
U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters as he stands with local law enforcement and business people while examining property damage while visiting Kenosha in the aftermath of recent protests against police brutality and racial injustice and the ensuing violence after the shooting of Jacob Blake by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, September 1, 2020.
Leah Millis | Reuters

President Donald Trump's chances of defeating former Vice President Joe Biden on Election Day are growing slimmer every day that passes without a major shake-up that could boost his standing with voters.

But such an October surprise could be less likely to move the needle in the coming days than in past cycles, a potential damper on Trump's shot at reelection.

Trump is down in state and national polls and nonpartisan election models give him about a 1-in-10 shot of winning the Electoral College, a historically low figure for an incumbent.

A look at Kenosha County, in the southeastern corner of battleground Wisconsin, provides an illustration of the difficulty that Trump faces in reshaping the race.

Trump was the first Republican to win in Wisconsin since 1984 — and the first to take Kenosha since 1972, which he did by just 255 votes. Trump won Wisconsin by a slim 23,000 votes.

The county, tucked between Milwaukee to the north and Chicago to the south, was seen as a telling indicator of Trump's ability to harness resentment against perceived liberal elites, and win over White, suburban voters and blue-collar workers who hadn't voted before or had cast ballots for Democrats.

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Over the summer, Kenosha appeared to be right at the center of just the kind of event that might have swung the race.

Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot in the back seven times by Rusten Sheskey, a police officer, in front of Blake's three sons, on Aug. 23. During the protests that followed, two protesters were killed and one was injured in a shooting for which a 17-year-old was charged.

The Blake shooting had the markings of a game changer. It took place a day before the Republican National Convention gave Trump a national audience to pitch himself as the law-and-order candidate. Afterward, both Trump and Biden descended on Kenosha.

Kellyanne Conway, a longtime Trump advisor who masterminded his strategy to win over women in 2016, said the violence gave Trump an opening.

"The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who's best on public safety and law and order," she declared after the shooting.

Two months later, however, the political significance of the shooting and the protests that followed has been swallowed up. An average of Wisconsin polls from the day of the shooting showed Biden with an advantage of just under 5 percentage points. He held the same lead in the state Wednesday.

It's also not clear how much Trump's push to cast himself as the law-and-order candidate shored up his favorability among the county's suburbanites.

In an August poll before the shooting, 49% of registered voters living in Milwaukee's suburbs expressed a favorable opinion of Trump, compared with 50% who had an unfavorable opinion, according to a Marquette University Law School poll. The week after the shooting, the numbers were almost unchanged, at 46% favorable to 48% unfavorable.

"There are very few people who haven't already made up their minds," explained Katherine Cramer, the author of the 2016 book "The Politics of Resentment" and a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Cramer said that given the polarization in the country, which was reflected in Wisconsin, nothing short of a new international military conflict was likely to change many minds. And, even then, she said, it was hard to imagine people who didn't like Trump suddenly rallying around him if the U.S. went to war.

"It's hard to imagine something that would change the race at this point," she said.

The stickiness of voters' preferences isn't all bad for Trump. It could also mute the impact of news events that would, in an ordinary race, hurt the incumbent.

On Monday, for instance, the tech website The Verge published a major investigation showing that a Foxconn LCD factory that Trump had touted as an economic engine for southeastern Wisconsin will almost certainly never create the jobs he had promised.

On Wednesday, Wisconsin reported a record number of deaths from the spreading Covid-19 pandemic. Seventy-four people in Kenosha County, which has a population of under 200,000, died of the disease as of Tuesday.

Cramer said that partisans on both sides are looking at those events in ways that suit their preferred candidate, meaning Trump might not suffer a political hit as a different president might.

Joe Zepecki, a Democratic strategist in the state, said the fact that the Blake shooting did not swing the race in Wisconsin was a bad sign for Trump, who needs the race to shift quickly. Early voting kicked off across Wisconsin on Tuesday.

Worse for the president, Zepecki predicted that Covid-19's recent uptick in the state will prove to be more salient.

"I think it is clear that the most important shoe to fall has been Covid-19," Zepecki said. "That's not to say that everyone who voted for him is abandoning him."

Zepecki believes the race will be close but that Biden will come away the winner.

Trump, who visited southern Wisconsin for an event on Saturday, continued to downplay the virus.

"I wish you had a Republican governor because, frankly, you've got to open your state up. You've got to open it up," Trump said. He added that if he wins Wisconsin "we win the whole ball game."

A spokeswoman for the Trump campaign said that they will beat Biden in the state with an effective ground game.

"President Trump built the greatest economy in the world, created jobs, and has stood up for law and order, whereas Biden oversaw the slowest economic recovery since the Great Depression, killed Wisconsin jobs, and has been weak in the face of his supporters' violent riots," the spokeswoman, Samantha Zager, said in a statement.

"The Trump campaign's massive ground game ensures we will turn out President Trump's supporters by Election Day, and Biden simply won't be able to compete with a nonexistent field program," Zager said.

The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment.