If Donald Trump thinks he can flip Wisconsin by rallying in the reliably blue western town of Eau Claire, he’s operating in his own reality. But if he wants to maximize the amount of possible free media coverage, a rally in a small city in a reliably blue county might be crazy like a fox.
Election day is one week away, and Donald Trump is spending his time in a state that no Republican has won since 1984, a state in which his opponent Hillary Clinton is leading in every poll. Some political watchers have pointed out that his stop in the Badger state is part of a strategy to net white working-class voters, to whip up his frothy core supporters and depress Hillary supporters enough to convince them to stay home on November 8. But to this Wisconsin native, that doesn’t come close to explaining what the hell he’s doing in Eau Claire today. To spend the Tuesday before election Tuesday in Wisconsin is strange, to spend that day in Eau Claire is genuinely weird. Unless his goal is attention, not victory.
The Wall Street Journal’s Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg have a theory that sounds on the surface like it could explain Trump’s strange destination. According to their analysis, Trump did exceptionally well during the Republican primaries in small towns with rapid influxes of nonwhite residents, and the western half of Wisconsin contains many towns that went strongly Trump. They quote a man in Arcadia, a small town in Trempealeau County, who supports Trump because, in his Wisconsin opinion, there are too many immigrants. The WSJ tagged several towns in the southwestern corner of the state as potential hotspots for Trumpism, due to an influx of immigrants between 2000 and 2015 and the fact that towns like that did well for Trump in the primaries. If he flips that part of the state, the logic goes, he’s got Wisconsin.
If the Trump campaign believes flipping southwestern Wisconsin could happen this year, I’d like a slice of whatever cheese it is they’re eating. It’s true that Trump did well in towns in western Wisconsin that experienced influxes of immigrants … in the Republican primaries. Problem is, there aren’t enough Republican primary-types in that neck of the woods to win elections.
Eau Claire, a small city of slightly under 70,000 residents, is a college town (Go Blugolds!), the last large-ish city along highway 53 until you run into Lake Superior, a lonely 2-1/2 hour drive due north. It’s not exactly Trump country. In 2012, President Obama won Eau Claire County, Wisconsin by 12 points. The entire southwestern corner of the state that unfolds below Eau Claire—with the exception of Monroe County—went blue that year, as it has, for the most part, in every year the state itself has gone blue. Eau Claire County, like the state of Wisconsin, has gone blue for the last seven presidential election cycles.
To find red, a Republican would have to head north to what locals call “Indianhead Country,” the sparsely-populated patchwork of open fields, deciduous trees, and dark green pines that has tipped Republican since it went all in for Bush in 2000. But my experience growing up in that part of the state of Wisconsin wasn’t one characterized by rabid xenophobia, or even immigrant communities with similar backstories.
Take, for example, Barron County, home of a Jennie-O Turkey processing plant that in the late 90’s was having trouble finding local workers to fill jobs and thus became a destination for Somali refugees. The county has flipped between blue and red since the influx of immigrants began, but the Somali community has become an important part of the town in the intervening years. The Welcome To Barron sign on the edge of town welcomes visitors and advertises the local mosque right alongside local Lutheran churches. The grocery stores carry halal meats. The high school’s soccer team, which started after Somalis began arriving, is a bit of an anomaly for a part of the country more traditionally into cross country skiing (the Birkebeiner, the largest and longest cross country ski race in North America, takes place about an hour’s drive away). A big, beautiful wall between the U.S. and Mexico would not solve any problems for a xenophobe in Barron. And any local issues with immigrants in Barron—who check two Trump boxes because they’re both foreign and Muslim—are not in danger of boiling over.
Eau Claire may be reliably blue, but it is within driving distance of deeper red parts of the state, as well as parts of Minnesota more friendly to Trump. Michele Bachmann’s home stomping grounds of Stillwater, Minnesota, as pleasant as a Currier & Ives ice cream tin filled with spiders, is only an hour and 20 minutes away. And the red stripe of counties that extends across Wisconsin’s middle like a pageant sash is a quick car ride away from where Trump is holding his rally today. The crowd will be big enough for him in Eau Claire, if enough Trump supporters are able to take time off from their busy and important jobs to drive a couple of country hours.
But why inconvenience his supporters at all? A more sensible location for a rural Wisconsin Trump rally would be deeper into what the state’s fourth-graders learn is called the Northern Highlands in Wausau, a couple of hours east of Eau Claire. There’s one big Trumpy problem with that: Wausau is smaller, sure, but it’s also too far from any major media market to garner the sort of free media amplification the Trump campaign has depended on. At this point in the election, CNN diagnoses every time Trump sneezes as a “breaking” news event, but a Trump rally near a major media market means it will lead local as well as national news. And local Minneapolis/St. Paul news reaches almost all the way to the Dakotas. He’s not going to win Wisconsin, and he’s not going to win Minnesota, but he’s not going to let people who live there forget he exists. Not when he’s got a theoretical future media company to sort of build, and then decisively run into the ground.
Maybe we’re giving the famously disorganized Trump campaign too much credit here. It careened through the primaries, and it’s continuing to careen through the general, and it’s now careening its way into a state it has little hope of winning. Western Wisconsin natives and politicos I reached out to about Trump’s Eau Claire rally seemed equal parts confused and amused. None of it makes any sense, and yet, all of it makes perfect sense. Like wearing a Packers jersey to church.