WEST ALLIS, Wisconsin — In Wisconsin, it’s war for whites.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are duking it out for a sizable but often-overlooked sector of the electorate: working-class white men, who make up a significant chunk of both party’s bases here in the Badger State.
And here’s the catch: Wisconsin voters can decide on primary day which party to join and whether they want to vote for Democrats or Republicans. So some Democratic politicos say that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are competing for the very same primary voters—and that Trump may be a problem for his liberal rival.
Trump’s success with this demographic is one of the few bright lights of his campaign, which performs miserably with women, Hispanics, African Americans, and the small but vocal anti-small-hand community. And emerging conventional wisdom holds that these less-educated white men could put states in play for Trump that otherwise would never be on the map for Republicans. The Washington Post floated last month that nominee Trump could give Republicans an electoral leg-up in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and (ahem) Wisconsin. The argument goes that economically disadvantaged white men will turn out in droves for The Donald.
Tuesday will put that theory to the test. The best available polling suggests it will come up wanting—in part because, in this particular Rust Belt state, many of those blue-collar white men prefer a different contender: Sanders.
Nevertheless, even though the polling data doesn’t yet show a major cross-party shift in either direction, some Democratic operatives are worrying about Trump poaching from their tried and true base.
“Both of them are competing for the same field of voters,” said Thad Nation, a longtime Democratic consultant in the state. “It is no coincidence that Trump went to Janesville.”
The fact that Trump’s first stop was Paul Ryan’s hometown, Nation added, showed political aplomb: The Republican frontrunner was willing to go after the state’s top Republican leaders—in particular, Scott Walker—in their own backyards. Nation added that this kind of message could appeal to independent and Democratic voters. And though the governor has high approval ratings among the state’s Republicans, Nation noted that many blue-collar white men despise him.
“If you’re targeting white union men, there’s not a poll of voters that’s more critical of Walker,” he said.
That would explain why Trump has spent his Wisconsin swing saying the economy is “highly overrated” and trashing Walker’s motorcycle.
Nation added that he believes many working-class men “absolutely” are having trouble picking between Sanders and Trump.
“You can see it in the coverage, you can hear it when you’re talking to people,” he continued. “This is a message that is resonating with a lot of voters. Both of them are playing a pretty hard populist message. You see this every day with voters trying to decide which primary they’re going to go into.”
And reports of Democrats changing their voter registration are only good for Trump.
“If you’re a Democrat, you’re not voting for Ted Cruz,” he said with a chuckle.
Meanwhile, Sanders is making an oddly similar pitch to Trump in the Badger State: ripping Walker, trashing free-trade agreements, and promising a revolution that will lift up the blue-collar workers both men need to win.
“Now, if you want to know what kind of president I will be, think of everything Scott Walker has done, and I will do the opposite,” Sanders said at a stop in Milwaukee on Saturday.
Matt Rothschild, who heads the progressive Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said he was seeing a similar phenomenon: working-class white dudes who had trouble distinguishing between the two candidates.
“The Trump thing is a guy thing, a white-guy thing, but Bernie Sanders is also getting some of the same white-guy vote,” he said. “So I talk to people who are not that informed as a voter and they seem to like both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.”
“I think Trump is a potential fascist, so I’m concerned about his appeal,” he added.
Charles Franklin, who runs the universally revered Marquette Law poll of Wisconsin voters, had some thoughts that could assuage those concerns.
“It’s true in our data at first that Sanders runs well in the Northwest, and so does Trump,” he said.
That part of the state is more rural than the developed southeast corner. And it’s overwhelmingly blue-collar and white. So it makes sense that Sanders and Trump both find lots of love from that part of the state. But Franklin added that he doesn’t see data indicating that a significant number of voters are switching between parties.
Still, Trump seems to think that courting the blue-collar white men who are disaffected by the modern global economy and angry at Badger State Republicans is a winning strategy. And Sanders seems to share that view.
“I see why Bernie Sanders is appealing to Reagan Democrats, and I also see that Trump is appealing to Reagan Democrats and to independents,” Rothschild said.
At Trump’s event in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis on Sunday evening, attendees didn’t frame their approach to voting with such wonky language. And none of the numerous white men The Daily Beast spoke with said they had trouble picking between Trump and Sanders (we’ve spoken to more attendees at Sanders events who expressed a liking for Trump than vice versa).
One white man named Carleton Endres, a welder, said he first took a liking to Trump when he accused Obama of forging his birth certificate.
“My dad is the same age as him, so he looked at his birth certificate, and looked at his, and said, they’re not even lookin’ alike,” Endres said, as the Rolling Stones blasted over nearby loudspeakers. “So he thought there was something fishy there.”
Despite being one of those storied white male blue-collar workers, Endres didn’t telegraph any strong feelings about trade or China.
“He says it as it is,” he added, after mentioning that the NSA concerned him. “That’s about it, I guess.”