Joe Biden has blown his chance to win over Kristen, to be found selling home-baked cakes and pies at a farmer’s market in Forest county, northern Wisconsin.
The 46-year-old was once a fan of Barack Obama, voting for him twice before switching her allegiance to Donald Trump four years ago. Kristen, who doesn’t want her last name used, was minded to back Trump again in November but was holding off to see who Biden chose as his vice-presidential running mate.
“The person I think should be the vice-presidential candidate is Michelle Obama. Nothing to do with her gender, nothing to do with her skin colour. I could care less. She could be purple. But I think she’s got a solid head on her shoulders. She’s not reactionary. She’s thoughtful. I don’t think she rushes to judgment,” she said.
Ultimately, Kristen wants to see Michelle Obama as president. She was not happy that Biden chose Kamala Harris, saying the decision was influenced by “the racial climate”.
So Kristen is likely to stick with Trump even if she struggles to offer a persuasive reason to vote for him again.
“When you don’t have a good choice, you go with the least worst choice. Trump versus Clinton, he was the least worst option and it wasn’t saying much. When you’re the least worst option, that doesn’t mean you’re the pretty girl at the prom. It just means there wasn’t anyone else showing up to dance with,” she said.
“Same with Biden. When dumb and dumber are running, it doesn’t matter who wins. I don’t think Trump is going to up his game but Biden, I just don’t think he has the tools in his chest to handle anything.”
Kristen votes in a county that swung heavily to Trump in 2016 along with large parts of rural Wisconsin. That delivered the state to the president by fewer than 23,000 votes, a margin of just 0.77%, and with it the electoral college votes, alongside extremely close victories in Michigan and Pennsylvania, to put him in the White House.
Opinion polls give Biden a clear but not insurmountable lead in Wisconsin. A Marquette University law school survey shows the gap narrowing slightly in recent weeks, with the Democrat six points ahead of Trump among registered voters even as the president records the second-lowest net job approval rating of his tenure at -10 points (44% approving, 54% disapproving).
The poll also found Democrats as likely as Republicans to vote in November, with about 87% of each saying they are certain to turn out. That is bad news for Trump, who won the state in 2016 in part because of a significant fall in Democrats voting. In Wisconsin’s largest city, Milwaukee, about 40,000 people who voted for Obama failed to turn out for Clinton.
The president’s challenge in November is not only to hold on to those who supported him last time but to win over new voters to offset the increased determination by Democrats in the Wisconsin’s larger cities to vote this time and a shift away from him in some conservative suburbs.
Trump has his work cut out in rural Forest county, in the upper reaches of rural Wisconsin, which has consistently backed presidential election winners of either party in recent times.
His support remains soft in the county among some of those who voted for him before, such as Kristen, and who have long criticised his erratic leadership, confrontational tweets and outright lies but who remained loyal because they said the economy was strong. The only plus for Trump is there is little evidence of widespread enthusiasm for Biden.
Terri Burl, the Republican county chair until last month, concedes that Trump is struggling.
“It’s a coin toss here with Wisconsin. Things are a little more ominous now for us. But I’m not a pessimist. I’m an optimist. The word out there is that we just have to stay positive, we have to get a positive message out,” said Burl, a former social worker.
But it’s hard to push the positive in the middle of a pandemic, mass unemployment and a tanking economy.
Kristen has not been impressed by Trump’s handling of coronavirus, particularly when she looks at other countries. But she pins responsibility on the culture as well as the president.
“I don’t think we acted quick enough. I think we were a little proud of what we thought our capabilities were versus what they were in reality. Overseas when they said stay home, they meant stay the hell home. Here, because we’ve been privileged and a bit spoiled, we’ve decided that we don’t have to listen,” she said. “There’s also a lot of conspiracy theories to the effect of hospitals bumping up the coronavirus numbers so they can get higher stipends from the government. You hear that around here.”
Burl acknowledges that Trump’s handling of the pandemic has not been his finest hour, particularly in questioning the advice of his own medical experts.
“There were mixed messages. On the one hand you want to be safe, you want to social distance as well as you can, wear masks if you can. But the whole notion of requiring this of freedom-loving people who don’t like the government telling them what to do, and who happen to be Republicans most of the time, he didn’t want to turn off his base because his base elected him,” she said.
For all of Trump’s problems, local Democrats are not bubbling with confidence that they can take back the county. Pat Lowery, vice-chair of the Forest county Democrats, put the odds at about 50/50.
“It’s very common to see people wearing Trump 2020 hats and flying a Trump flag underneath the American flag in their yard. It almost seems fashionable for younger people to be Trump supporters for the past couple of years,” he said.
“A lot of it has to do with social media and the misinformation that gets spread on Facebook. They hear that scare word the Republicans like to use, socialism. But I think that’s changing a bit now once they’re seeing the lack of leadership and the unemployment.”
Lowery, who was a public school teacher for 32 years and a professional musician, said the election would boil down to a referendum on Trump’s handling of the pandemic but that longstanding culture war issues continued to play a role.
“People around this part of the state are gun owners and they’re under the impression that Democrats want to take away people’s guns. I don’t know of any Democrat who’s ever taken anyone’s gun away but it’s still a big issue,” he said. “There’s a lot of misinformation. One of the things that I see quite often posted on social media is that students in our public schools don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance any more. I visited 18 different high schools last year and every single one of them says the Pledge of Allegiance.”
Still, the divide on cultural issues is not cut and dried. Burl tried and failed to get Wisconsin’s Republican party to endorse same-sex marriage a few years ago, which she said created a lot of backlash. And she is unequivocal in her view of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, even as her own state faces protests over the shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed African American man, seven times in the back by a police officer.
But then she questions the extent of the reaction. “That thing with George Floyd, getting murdered like that – really, he was murdered by that cop – I think we can all agree it was not necessary that he did that,” she said. “I think there are going to be positive changes because of that but even with positive changes, you can take it too far. Like they’re gonna get rid of Aunt Jemima pancakes and now football teams are trying to change their names again. I suppose if it’s time, it’s time. I just think there’s too much unrest.”
Lowery calculates that there are hidden Trump voters who are embarrassed to say they still support the president alongside those who do not want to admit they made a mistake.
“I think a lot of them jumped on the bandwagon of Trump’s rhetoric and I think at this point some of them would be embarrassed to say that they were wrong to support President Trump,” he said. “There are also people who people who just won’t talk politics any more because the atmosphere is so nasty. I saw some of it in the 2016 election. But I think it’s much, much worse now. I never saw it before 2016.”
One military veteran said he had been an enthusiastic Trump supporter four years ago and liked the president for keeping the US out of conflicts.
“Now I think he’s betrayed his country, but I’m not going to say that in public. It would cost me friends and it will cause problems in my family,” said the veteran. “It’s not just one thing but the final straw was the Russians paying the Taliban bounties on Americans. I believe Trump knew about that and he’s lying. Doing nothing about the bounties was the final straw for me.”
So why won’t he say this in public?
“Not around here. The Trumpers are angry because he’s going to lose. Lots of anger and lots of guns don’t mix,” he said.