Donald Trump won Wisconsin in 2016, but he did not surge to victory there. Whatever narrative of populist fervor you may have assigned to Trump’s election night surprise, he won Wisconsin with 6,000 fewer votes than Mitt Romney got there four years earlier.
“There was very little enthusiasm in Wisconsin for Hillary Clinton,” says journalist Dan Kaufman, who grew up in the state and has been watching the political comings and goings there his entire life. “I talked to the head of the UAW Local at a Kohler plumbing plant in Sheboygan, and he said he saw far, far more volunteer enthusiasm for Barack Obama in 2008 than he saw for Hillary Clinton in 2016.”
Clinton underperformed Obama’s 2012 total in Wisconsin by 239,000 votes—15 percent of his total—which is how Trump was able to win there with sub-Romney numbers. And it’s only gotten worse for Trump in the nearly two years since. His 35 percent approval rating in Wisconsin is well below the national average, and two-thirds of the state’s voters say they’re ready for a new president in 2020.
In The Fall of Wisconsin, his new book about the state’s recent political history, Kaufman paints an optimistic case for Democrats to retake the state in 2020 if the party nominates a presidential candidate who generates more excitement there than Hillary Clinton did. (It’s almost certain the 2020 Democratic nominee will actually campaign in Wisconsin. Clinton did not.)
Kaufman sat down with The Daily Beast to talk about the past, present and future of Wisconsin politics.
Is Wisconsin a blue state or a red state?
That’s a good question. It’s always been both. Barack Obama won Wisconsin handily in 2008 and a little less so in 2012. Wisconsin had gone Democratic in presidential elections since 1984 though sometimes by slender margins. The Progressive Movement was important in Wisconsin, and those progressives were generally Republicans. And even before that the abolitionists were prominent in Wisconsin, and they were generally Republicans.
Many of the governing norms in Wisconsin have historically been bipartisan—things like government transparency and even labor rights. Collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin was a Republican effort in the ’60s, and those rights were famously stripped by a Republican governor, Scott Walker, in 2011.
Donald Trump won Wisconsin by only 23,000 votes. Is it a 50/50 state now?
There’s always been both a progressive spirit and somewhat of an attraction to right-wing populism. The state voted for Joe McCarthy twice, and George Wallace found a lot of support there. It’s still, I think, predominantly progressive. There was a concerted effort beginning in 2010 to change the state’s political culture, and that has been somewhat successful. I don’t know how permanent it will be.
The optimistic case for Democrats is that Trump won white Wisconsin voters by 11 points, won white voters nationally by 20 points, and he’s a lot less popular today. The pessimistic case is that white voters are increasingly voting Republican and Wisconsin is overwhelmingly white. Do you see more evidence for one case vs. the other?
One thing about the 2016 election that isn’t widely noted is that Donald Trump got roughly the same number of votes that Mitt Romney got, but Hillary Clinton got a lot fewer votes. Wisconsin has a very strict voter ID law that a study by UW-Madison showed deterred some voters in 2016 compared to 2012 before the voter ID law had gone into effect.
There was a huge, massive enthusiasm gap, and that was partly because Hillary Clinton didn’t show up in Wisconsin. Wisconsin Democrats tend to be to the left of the national party, and they were angry about the abandonment of the national Democrats during the labor battles in 2010. Barack Obama never went to Wisconsin to show support for the campaign against the attack on collective bargaining.
Has breaking the unions weakened them politically?
The National Bureau of Economic Research published a study in January showing that right-to-work laws correlate to a 3.5 percent decline in Democratic vote totals.
Because they don’t vote or because they vote Republican?
Because you’re atomizing that vote. Unions aren’t just about wages. They’re also a place for workers to share ideas and to mobilize in the political process. The unions drive turnout by getting people motivated and getting people to vote. These are also the people who will go to protests about immigrant rights or other issues. When there are fewer of those people, there’s less cohesion and less participation in Democratic politics.
And you write in the book that the effort against unions was designed—at least in some part—to weaken Democrats in Wisconsin.
Right-to-work states tend to be Republican. A billionaire donor asked Scott Walker in 2011 when Wisconsin would become a completely red state, and Walker said the bill against collective bargaining rights was the first step toward that. He said you have to divide and conquer, and he largely succeeded. That said, I see somewhat of a revival on the Democratic side.
Patty Schachtner, who is a Democrat, recently won a special election in a Wisconsin state-senate district that Trump had won by 18 points. What do you take from that?
There have been several of those elections. There was a state supreme court election and another state senate race than have been favorable for Democrats. Patty Schachtner won in a heavily Trump-leaning district, and I think there is some fatigue with Trump’s divisiveness. Trump’s rhetoric is off-putting to a lot of people. Scott Walker and Paul Ryan don’t act that way even though their policy approaches may be very similar to Trump’s.
Scott Walker was elected governor in 2010, and you noted in the book that he did fairly well with union voters.
People forget that he had cultivated an image during that campaign as a populist. He took a Harley-Davidson around the state, and he would eat his brown-bag lunch. That was a different kind of populism than Trump’s, and it had a lot of appeal in rural Wisconsin. And he promised labor leaders that he would not sign a right-to-work law.
Do you see the Tea Party voters who elected Scott Walker in 2010 as the core of Trump’s voters in Wisconsin?
Some of them, but there are a lot of persuadables. Obama won Kenosha County handily, and that was a strong industrial area that has been losing manufacturing jobs to automation and free trade. That county swung from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016, and it was about a 12-point swing. There are a lot of people struggling to get by in that area, and Trump made a compelling appeal to them that he would bring the jobs back. Bernie Sanders appealed to those voters, but the Democrats didn’t have a message for them in the general election.
Did Paul Ryan bear any blame for the huge GM plant that closed in his district in 2009?
No, I don’t think so. He went to Detroit with a group to try and persuade GM not to close the plant. For a long time, Ryan was a typical, constituent-oriented congressman, and his ideology wasn’t as apparent early on. It wasn’t until President Obama was elected that he became a figurehead for radical libertarianism.
Ryan presents himself as self-made, and he’s never worked in the private sector. He came from wealth, right?
He worked some menial jobs that he uses to sell the mythology around himself, but he inherited a significant sum from his father, who was a prominent lawyer in Janesville.
And whatever he does after he leaves Congress in January will be because his is former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
Exactly. The irony of much of the libertarian movement is how tied it actually is to the government sector. For those of us who are a little cynical, it’s nothing more than trying to take advantage of a situation and cloaking that in an ideology. Ryan has benefitted incredibly from the United States government.
How popular is Paul Ryan in his home district?
That district has a lot of older, working-class people who are struggling to get by, and Ryan’s attacks on Obamacare were unpopular with many of them. The tax bill was not well received. Ryan has increasingly come to be perceived in his district as an out-of-touch figure.
The Republican agenda is actually not very popular, but Ryan and other Republicans have been able to mask that. Ryan has relentlessly pursued the privatization of Social Security. He would sometimes criticize Trump’s racism or sexism, but he was also supporting Trump’s agenda.
Do you see white voters continuing to trend Republican is Wisconsin?
I think it depends. That trend is partly because the Democratic Party has moved away from the working class in a very significant way. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama supported trade policies that were not helpful to people in Wisconsin. Donald Trump attacked Nafta and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and he made a pointed defense of Social Security and Medicare. He’s not defending the welfare state now, but he did during the campaign.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was not even campaigning in Wisconsin, and the Bernie Sanders campaign in the primary was extremely effective. He won 71 of 72 counties against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary. I think Sanders would have beaten Trump in Wisconsin, but it’s academic at this point.