MEDFORD, Wis. (AP) — President Donald Trump’s once-comfortable advantage in the pivotal region of Wisconsin around the blue-collar hub of Green Bay has dwindled. In suburban Milwaukee, long a Republican-dominated area, it has thinned as well.
And his supporters are far from confident he can find thousands of new voters in the state’s sparsely populated rural areas to make up for the setbacks.
Trump’s path to victory in Wisconsin, a state he won narrowly in 2016, has become increasingly complicated, and so has his path to the 270 electoral votes needed for his reelection.
“It’s challenging. There are far more states in play in 2020 than there were in 2016,” said Whit Ayers, a veteran Republican pollster. “And they include states Trump won by a significant margin like Arizona, Iowa, Ohio and Georgia.”
Few states are as important to the president’s prospects as Wisconsin, which he carried by less than 23,000 votes out of nearly 3 million cast in 2016 and which had not voted for a Republican for president in more than a generation.
But even Trump’s supporters concede the hill is steep given the declines they are seeing. “Can Republicans and Trump offset that? That’s the big question, and I don’t have a strong answer,” said Jim Miller, the Republican chairman of Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District, which covers the state’s northernmost 26 counties.
A similar narrative is playing out in other Midwestern states, and in Pennsylvania, with local officials sounding alarms about Trump’s prospects. He must make up significant ground in these states in the campaign’s final four weeks to replicate his 2016 upset and defeat Democrat Joe Biden.
Trump is stressing his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court and his call for law and order in response to demonstrations over racial injustice, which aides say are winning Wisconsin issues.
“I think that we are not necessarily losing those voters. I think that those voters are currently undecided,” especially in the Milwaukee area, said Nick Trainer, the Trump campaign’s director of battleground strategy.
Trump had planned to campaign last Saturday in Green Bay, but his positive coronavirus test forced him to cancel, punctuating his struggles in this region of the state where he beat Clinton by 18 percentage points, Wisconsin voting records show.
Trump’s once narrow edge in that region collapsed in a Marquette University poll published Wednesday. GOP legislative surveys noted by strategists are also prompting worries that there’s little time to rebuild the margins they need to win the state a second time.
“He’s winning the Green Bay market, but not by enough to help him statewide,” said Scott Jensen, a Republican former Wisconsin Assembly speaker who is advising in several competitive Statehouse races.
The obstacle is similar to Trump’s in Ohio, where he won by 8 percentage points but where public surveys show the race close.
“You can’t win a state by 8 and then 30 days out be struggling in places you dominated,” said Scott Borgemenke, a onetime top adviser to Republican former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft.
As Biden’s campaign on Tuesday announced stepped-up Ohio advertising, Trump was reducing his Ohio advertising, according to the ad tracking firm Kantar/CMAG.
The trend is similar in Wisconsin, where Trump slashed his advertising by 75% over the past month and was being swamped by Biden’s spending, $2.3 million to less than $173,000 as of last week, according to Kantar/CMAG.
Trump also needs to vastly improve in Milwaukee’s suburbs, Jensen said.
The president last campaigned in Milwaukee in January, the night Democrats debated in Des Moines, Iowa, ahead of the presidential caucuses. Trump visited blue-collar Kenosha south of Milwaukee in August after the shooting of a Black man by white police officers, though he held no political events.
Wisconsin voters “will see a lot more of the Trump campaign over the next four weeks,” Trainer said.
Still, Trump’s suburban absence has underscored his Wisconsin dilemma, one that shadows him in Pennsylvania: Stay away from the state’s population centers or show up and risk alienating suburban voters.
It’s sparked some unlikely campaign travel advice for Trump from Wisconsin Republican Rep. John Nygren.
“Not to be disrespectful to him, but, for him, he may be better off not going to the suburbs,” said Nygren, from Marinette in far northwestern Wisconsin. “Because if he’s not in the news, maybe it’s not a reminder of concerns that people have.”
Jensen said the president’s combative persona has cost him.
“It’s all a matter of style. That traditional GOP base of college-educated professionals can’t stand the president’s style,” said Jensen, who has conducted focus groups in key Milwaukee area legislative districts.
It’s a scenario also playing out in Pennsylvania, where Trump won by a smaller percentage than in Wisconsin.
And in Pennsylvania Trump is facing a more dire decline in suburbs where Republicans held sway until 2016, such as Chester County, and have lost ground since, said Republican former U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello, who represented Chester County until last year.
Trump has seemed to heed Nygren’s advice, campaigning since August in Oshkosh, a hub of the southern Fox Valley, and in September outside Wausau, the media market reaching furthest into northern Wisconsin. Vice President Mike Pence has followed suit, campaigning in Wausau, in LaCrosse on the western border and in Eau Claire in the northwest.
But Trump would have to attract several thousand first-time voters in the sparsely populated rural north, where in several counties he received more than 60% of the vote, to compensate for the declines in more populous parts of the state.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Mike Bub, GOP chairman in tiny Taylor County, said with a shrug. Trump received 70% of the vote in the county of 20,000 west of Wausau. Taylor posted Trump’s second-highest 2016 margin in Wisconsin.
What’s more, Marquette’s September poll shows Biden, not Trump, receiving more support from first-time voters.
“Can you squeeze enough votes out of there to make the difference?” Jensen said. “Probably not.”