Trump’s advisers are planning for the president and vice president to travel repeatedly to Wisconsin, where they believe they have a better shot at beating presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden than in Pennsylvania or Michigan, these people said.
In 2016, Trump took Michigan by 0.2 percentage points and Wisconsin by 0.8 percentage points. Those upset victories may be difficult to re-create in 2020, with Trump as president now overseeing a series of economic crises in the Midwest, including some tied to his administration.
In the western part of Wisconsin, farmers have been hammered by a crisis in the dairy industry exacerbated by Trump’s trade war and have shown signs of leaning toward Democrats. Trump has, thus far, fallen far short of his promises to rebuild the Rust Belt’s manufacturing base. Unemployment has skyrocketed in Wisconsin to 12 percent amid a similar rise in the rest of the country because of the coronavirus pandemic. Black voters in Milwaukee particularly hurt by the economic downturn are expected to turn out in more substantial numbers than they did in 2016.
“Biden is not going to ignore Wisconsin like Hillary [Clinton] did. Biden probably plays better in the Midwest than Hillary did. He’s going to have to go to Wisconsin a lot,” said one top adviser to the president, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly discuss internal strategy.
Trump’s advisers believe polling suggests he is running competitively with Biden in Wisconsin. Some allies note a Marquette poll from August 2016 found Clinton leading in the state by 15 points after the Democratic convention. Trump could lose Pennsylvania and Michigan and would still have a lead in the electoral college over Biden if the president again wins Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Arizona, all of which Democrats say they plan to contest.
After several months of largely being confined to the White House amid the pandemic, Trump will try to build momentum for his 2020 campaign in Wisconsin by visiting Fincantieri Marinette Marine in the northeastern part of the state.
The shipyard, run by a U.S. subsidiary of an Italian-owned conglomerate, was just a few years ago facing a halt in production that threatened thousands of jobs in Wisconsin and Michigan. Saudi Arabia stepped in with a $2 billion purchase of ships that will keep these workers employed. In May, the Navy also awarded an $800 million contract — the first order in a program worth up to $5.5 billion — to the shipyard for a new class of warships that are expected to provide a long-term lifeline and propel the region’s economic development.
Trump will almost certainly need to win Wisconsin’s northeast, including the Fox Valley region and Marinette, if his path to reelection rests with Wisconsin. In 2018, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) successfully flipped the heavily agricultural western part of the state hurt by Trump’s trade war into the Democratic column. Baldwin also performed better than Clinton in the wealthier suburbs surrounding Wisconsin’s cities. If those trends persist, Trump will need to run up large margins in the state’s predominantly blue collar, overwhelmingly white northeast, where Baldwin also made inroads, analysts say. Democrats acknowledge the shipyards’ new federal contracts could help the president’s case.
“Of the people I talked to, a lot of them are giving [Trump] credit” for the shipyard contract, said Karl Jaeger, a Democrat on the Marinette County Board of Supervisors. “It brings jobs in, it brings money in. On the local Facebook groups, there’s a lot of talk about it and people really do think he is responsible.”
Jeager and other Democrats think Trump is overstating his role in securing the deals. Wisconsin’s congressional delegation, including Baldwin, have for years fought for long-term contracts for the shipyard. The Saudi arms deal was cleared by Congress in 2015, under the Obama administration, although it took four more years to arrive at an agreement specifically for the Marinette plant. The White House is not supposed to interfere with the Navy’s contracting process, especially for political reasons.
“People in Wisconsin know Trump is just coming for the press release,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said. Biden’s campaign released a statement Thursday saying the Obama administration was responsible for the shipyard deal and accused Trump of trying “to paper over the fact that Wisconsin has been bleeding blue-collar manufacturing jobs” over the past several weeks.
Senior White House economic adviser Peter Navarro told The Washington Post that the shipyard’s contracts are a result of the tremendous increase in military spending and defense production that the president prioritized over the course of his term in office. The White House also deserves credit for “jump-starting” the process that led to the contract by making a broader arms deal with the Saudis in 2017, Navarro said. Critics say U.S. military sales to Saudi Arabia help fuel a genocide that country is carrying out against Yemen.
“There would have been no contract award without President Trump dramatically increasing the defense budget,” Navarro said. “The president certainly deserves a Wisconsin victory lap for that.”
The White House said in a statement it had no involvement in the Navy’s decision to choose the Wisconsin shipyard over competing options in Maine, Virginia, Mississippi and Alabama. Navy spokesman Capt. Danny Hernandez said preserving jobs in Wisconsin did not motivate the award decision, which he said focused on getting the best product for the best price.
“Fincantieri beat out four other tough competitors with a project that combines the genius of Italian artisans with the historically high craftsmanship of a Wisconsin shipyard long known for its quality and expertise,” Navarro said. “It will sail the seas of Asia and the Arabian Sea as one of the most versatile and important ships in the American arsenal of democracy.”
But even with Fincantieri beginning to create jobs in the area, other parts of the president’s economic pitch to Wisconsin face significant challenges.
More than 2,000 of Wisconsin’s 9,000 dairy farms went out of business during the first three years of Trump’s administration, a record since the 1980s, according to Darin Von Ruden, president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union. The state is on pace for a similar if not greater number this year. Farmers have grown suspicious of Trump’s promises that China will soon be buying large amounts of agricultural products from the Midwest as part of the “Phase One” trade deal signed in January.
“There was a lot of hope among independent farmers in 2016 that Trump would change the system, or bring around changes that would be positive,” Von Ruden said. “Trump many times has said, ‘We’re over the hump,’ or, ‘The worst is behind us,’ and it has not been true. So there are a lot of farmers who are skeptical now of what he is saying or what he will do.”
The president has also fallen short of achieving his promises to rebuild the Rust Belt’s manufacturing base, even before the pandemic hit. More than 2,000 people were granted assistance for federal retraining programs because their jobs had been outsourced from Wisconsin in 2017 and 2018, according to federal data, a small decline from the end of the Obama administration. That number probably represents a small fraction of total jobs lost to outsourcing in the state, because many workers don’t know about the program.
Manufacturing in the state has shown some signs of improvement but is largely on its trajectory from before the Obama administration. In 2015 and 2016, Wisconsin had roughly 470,000 manufacturing jobs — a number that rose slightly to around 484,000 in 2019. Manufacturing employment in Wisconsin at no point in Trump’s presidency has recovered to its levels before the Great Recession. This May, manufacturing jobs in Wisconsin fell sharply to 2009 levels.
Trump has also lavished praise in 2018 on Foxconn, a Taiwanese electronics manufacturer in southeastern Wisconsin, as the “eighth wonder of the world” and said it would revitalize the region. CNBC reported in April that the company has missed the hiring requirements necessary to qualify for millions in state subsidies.
The Wisconsin Economic Forecast, a state report, said Wednesday it could take the state two years for the state to recover to pre-coronavirus employment levels, with personal income growth projected to fade dramatically this year and next.
The president’s allies argue that with unemployment nationally above 10 percent, he will have to convince Wisconsin and other areas that he is better positioned to push the economy in the right direction. Internal polls show the president leads Biden on few issues — but he retains an advantage on handling the economy. The trips to Midwest states are part of a broader effort to tout an “American Comeback,” campaign and White House officials say.
“Before our booming economy was artificially interrupted by the coronavirus, President Trump’s pro-growth policies, tax cuts, and deregulation brought Wisconsin 56,000 new jobs, including 15,000 new manufacturing jobs and more than 12,000 construction jobs,” said Ali Pardo, a campaign spokeswoman.