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Why rural white voters in Wisconsin will weigh in on the presidential election


– From Alma (Wisconsin)

The last time Larry Jost considered supporting a Republican was in elementary school. “I was wearing a badge ‘I like Ike’ (‘I like Ike’, nickname of Dwight Eisenhower, Republican president from 1953 to 1961), but it was mostly for the rhyme,” “Recalls the man whose family has lived in Wisconsin for six generations. The small town of Alma, where he lives, has two main streets and stretches along the Mississippi River, between a dam and limestone cliffs.

Seven key states

The American media counts seven swing states, or key states, which could decide the outcome of the American presidential election on November 5. These are states that are not firmly won by either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. And which could therefore swing one way or the other during the vote.

These seven states include Georgia, but also Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arizona, Nevada, Michigan and Wisconsin. In the 2020 election, Joe Biden won in six of these states, with the exception of North Carolina. Today, Donald Trump is regularly given the lead in the polls in most swing states, underlines Politico. Throughout the American election campaign, International mail is publishing a series of reports from key states, including the second part, from Arizona.

International mail

Every Wednesday morning, at his wife’s art gallery, Larry goes to his book club meeting, where he meets a former local magistrate, a carpenter, and a farmer, among others. At the last club meeting, they discussed an anthology of short stories collected by (the African-American poet) Langston Hughes. “We’re the last Democrats in Buffalo County – why do you think we’re quietly here in bulletproof vests?” joked one of them.

An endangered species

That’s because they belong to a species that has suddenly become endangered. From 1988 to 2012, Buffalo County voted Democrat in every presidential election. Then, in 2016, Donald Trump won the county by 22 points, and brutally snatched Wisconsin from the Democrats in his electoral vote victory over his rival, Hillary ClintonIn 2020, Trump again won Buffalo County by a landslide, and while he lost Wisconsin to Joe Biden, it was by just 20,000 votes out of nearly 3 million cast.

Trump’s enduring appeal to rural white voters has been a key factor in his rise, and resurrection. Rural areas have steadily turned away from Democrats.

In Wisconsin, rural white voters are on average more left-leaning than elsewhere in the United States. Local polls suggest Biden has a narrow lead in the state, and his re-election may depend on his ability to rally even more of this segment of the electorate.

The confrontation that is emerging in Wisconsin is surprising, in part because it contradicts the usual image of Trump being idolized by white rural voters. These voters represent a much larger share of the Wisconsin electorate than those in the six other states classified as key states in 2024. Paradoxically, they remain much less Republican than their counterparts in the other swing states.

An old bastion of agrarianism

In 2020, Joe Biden lost to this segment of the electorate by 24 points in Wisconsin, compared to 43 points nationally. In Pennsylvania and Michigan, Trump won the rural white vote by 44 and 31 points, respectively. According to a recent survey by Marquette University Law School in Wisconsin, Biden made slight gains among rural voters in the state compared to 2020—but that improvement is more than offset by his decline among suburban voters.

Larry Jost and his book club friends are not the outlier we thought: the Democratic coalition in Wisconsin owes much to rural white voters. Why is the Democratic vote in rural Wisconsin so resilient? First, and most obviously, the state is an old bastion of progressive agrarianism, as embodied in the early 20th centurye century Robert La Follette, re-elected three times governor and three times state senator, advocated progressive taxation and public investment in rural areas. La Follette and his successors in Wisconsin politics, who later joined the Democratic Party, united around them “the supporters of progressive agrarianism, who viewed the role of the State favorably, since it brought electricity, public services, and roads to the countryside,” “summarizes Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. A vision that has not completely disappeared.

Populist turn

The shift to anti-state populism dates back to 2010, at the height of the Tea Party wave. That year, Republicans took over all three branches of power (judicial, legislative, and executive) in the state of Wisconsin, and Scott Walker became governor thanks to a speech demonizing civil servants and their fat pensions. Dozens of rural counties that had always voted Democratic gave him their votes. A few years later, Trump only had to reap what Scott Walker had sown.

Beyond this long-standing progressive tradition, the Trump vote faces other obstacles in Wisconsin. Several moderately sized college campuses are scattered throughout the state (remember that Biden does better in rural areas among young voters and high school graduates). Wisconsin also has a fairly balanced demographic, between residential suburbs and rural areas, between college-educated and non-college-educated voters, so much so that the two parties’ scores have evolved almost symmetrically in recent years.

During the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton never visited Wisconsin, and Democrats are still kicking themselves about it. This year, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have already visited eight times, between them. Rallies are rare in rural areas, but of the 46 locations Biden’s campaign has opened in Wisconsin (a record for a key state), nearly half are in rural counties.

Republicans are betting that these efforts, or controversial issues like abortion and the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol, will be ineffective against Trump’s appeal to rural voters. Before he won Wisconsin in 2016, no Republican had won the state in 32 years, and Trump did so without even having to deploy major resources. The Wisconsin Republican Party remains well organized and “very good at mobilizing his voters”, says Mark Graul, a conservative strategist.

The “rage of the white countryside”

Biden’s biggest problem is that his record on the economy and immigration is seen as abysmal, two issues that voters generally, and rural voters in particular, consider top priorities. In rural Wisconsin, as in much of rural America, the problems are deep: population decline, the collapse of local businesses, a crisis in access to health care, and the closing of family farms.

Charlene, a farmer in western Wisconsin, works a second job as a housekeeper to supplement her family’s income, and she will vote for Trump in November because of his tough economic and health care policies. Recently, her son got sick and ended up with exorbitant health care costs. Because of Republican resistance, Wisconsin is one of the last ten states in the U.S. that has not extended Medicaid to patients whose incomes put them just above the poverty line.

Democrats like to tout their commitment to big investments in rural areas. For example, President Joe Biden’s major infrastructure bill (in November 2021) included a $1.4 billion (€1.3 billion) envelope to expand broadband internet in poorly covered areas, in particular to make up for the rural areas’ gap in access to the digital economy. But this will take time. Joe Biden may complain that his economic successes are not being properly appreciated, but his technocratic policies and his talk of protecting democratic rules are not resonating with rural voters who have “the very clear feeling that the political system is broken”, says Bill Hogseth, a local activist in western Wisconsin.

The “white rural rage” cliché may be overstated. Still, when rural voters hear Trump say that Washington, the federal capital, is a mess and that they have a right to be angry, those are words that resonate, Hogseth confirms, adding: “There is a lot of anger among us, so obviously, if there is a candidate ready to talk about it, there will be people to follow him.”

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