Watch CBS News

Western Wisconsin helped put Trump over the top in 2016. Here's how some voters there feel about him now

Candidates begin final weekend of campaigning
Candidates begin final weekend of campaigning with stops in Midwest 07:31

In 2016, a total of 206 counties across the country that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 swung away to support Republican nominee Donald Trump in 2016. Wisconsin has 23 of these counties. 

More than a dozen of these counties are in western Wisconsin. Communities lining the banks of the Mississippi River helped turn Wisconsin Republican in the first presidential election since 1984. 

These rural, overwhelmingly White and sparsely populated counties in the state's western edge are highly  sought, in large part, for their lack of partisan loyalty at a time when Americans sit increasingly entrenched in Democratic and Republican camps. 

John Valentine, a 55-year-old from Viola, Wisconsin who works in maintenance, supported Mr. Obama in 2008, but regretted his decision because his health insurance costs then went up. He sat out 2012, but voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and is voting for him again this year.

"He's a leader — he's not afraid to tell people what needs to be said," Valentine said while packing up his car outside of a Walmart in Richland County. Mr. Obama won the county by 16.1 points in 2012, and Mr. Trump won it by 5.5 points in 2016. 

And while many of Wisconsin's small towns and cities in its southwestern corner drove up Mr. Trump's margins, most had not voted for Republicans in decades, says Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

"That was part of Trump's victory in the state, for sure — to cobble together a lot of those small communities to overcome losses in other parts of the state," said Burden. The communities also tend to skew older and with working-class roots, a critical base of support for Mr. Trump's 2016 victory offsetting smaller margins in the traditionally Republican suburbs. 

"Compared to prior Republicans, both statewide candidates and presidential candidates, Trump is not faring as well in the suburbs as they had, particularly the suburbs around Milwaukee," said Burden. "He needs to compensate by winning some Republican votes elsewhere, and four years ago, that was done by winning a lot of rural communities."

But Democrats reclaimed some of the territory in western Wisconsin in 2018. Governor Tony Evers carried five of the counties that Mr. Trump flipped, and Senator Tammy Baldwin won nine. 

Burden said that the president's message on trade, health care and illegal immigration resonated with voters four years ago, but some are "unsatisfied" with Mr. Trump's record. 

Many communities in the region have deep ties to farming, especially in southwestern Wisconsin and have endured big losses in recent years. In 2019, Wisconsin led the country in farm bankruptcies, according to the American Farm Bureau, and the state lost 10% of its dairy herds due to low milk prices. 

Representative Ron Kind, a moderate Democrat whose district encompasses many of the areas that pivoted to Mr. Trump in 2016, thinks both parties "have been derelict in addressing income inequality, and opportunities for all workers." 

The 12-term incumbent now faces a serious challenge to keep his seat. President Trump won Kind's district by 4 points in 2016, when he was unopposed.. This year, Kind is depending on  Democrats' "PTSD from 2016," combined with greater enthusiasm for Joe Biden, to drive turnout. 

"Obviously, four years ago, you had a known entity of 30 years. People had pretty much made their mind up, and decided to take a flyer on the outside change agent, Donald Trump," Kind told CBS News. "Fast-forward four years, and I don't think there's a lot of embrace of what they've seen and what he has done, especially at the height of this pandemic."

As coronavirus' third resurgence ravages the Midwest, nearly every county in western and southwest Wisconsin is seeing  "very high" case activity levels according to state data, with hospitalizations on the rise in some counties. 

Bob Nugent, a 76-year-old retired school administrator from Ithaca, Wisconsin, recently recovered from COVID-19. The Biden supporter experienced a bad cough and felt constantly fatigued. 

"It's unimaginable that a country of our wealth medically astute we are that we're in this position," Nugent said "And it's just because Donald Trump screwed up."

On Tuesday, just before President Trump arrived to campaign in West Salem, health officials in the state announced Wisconsin's highest number of daily coronavirus cases and deaths since the pandemic began. That same day, the U.S. added more than 74,000 cases.

The president repeatedly told rally-goers that the country was "rounding the turn" on the pandemic, a metaphor ready-made for La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway. "This race track, look at this. It's perfect. We're rounding the curve. We will vanquish the virus."

Both Biden and Mr. Trump are in Wisconsin on Friday. It's Biden's third trip since he secured the Democratic nomination and Mr.Trump's ninth campaign visit to the state since January 2019 and his fourth stop in October.

The final Marquette University Law School poll before the election showed Biden leading Mr. Trump 48% to 43% among likely voters, a margin that has held relatively steady since the spring. The latest CBS News Battleground Tracker also shows Biden leading in Wisconsin by 6 points.

Kind's challenger, Derrick Van Orden, argues that the fact that Mr. Trump is not a career politician, coupled with the signing of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement will bolster his popularity in this part of the state, particularly among farmers and manufacturers. 

"There's a tremendous amount of independents and former Democrats that have come up to me and said, 'we are supporting you because we know that you are going to put us first,'" Van Orden said. "And that's exactly the same reason that these former Democrats, or gee, some of them are current Democrats and independents are voting for President Trump this year."

The president's reelection bid claims that more than half of those who registered online for his rally in West Salem are not listed as Republicans in their voter database, while just over a quarter did not vote in 2016. 

Voters like Ellen Sanson, a retired clinical laboratory scientist who lives in Lancaster, finds neither candidate appealing. She's voting for Mr. Trump: "I'm going to go with the devil I know instead of the devil I don't." 

But she remarked, "I don't think he's been bad for the country, but his mouth gets him in trouble."

Sanson voted for Mr. Trump four years ago and said she likes what he did for the economy before the pandemic and his focus on the military. Biden is too old, she's decided, and she worries about running mate Kamala Harris' experience. There was one Democrat she would have voted for in November: Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. 

In Juneau County, where Mr. Obama won by 7 points in 2012 and Mr. Trump by 26, artist Diane Dahl says she's tired of the political division. She rents space to the local Democratic Party in a building she owns, and has lost at least one prospective tenant because of it.

"One person has stopped to look at it and pretty much on the way out said, 'Well, if the Democrats would ever leave, let me know,'" said Dahl, who voted for Biden. "We have to stop the hate. We just have to stop this hate that is festering through the country."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.