Elections

Trump wants to win even more rural votes in 2020. Democrats are scrambling to catch up

Corey Bauch is eager to explain why he regrets not voting for Donald Trump.

The 44-year old-agreed to meet with me last week in this rural Wisconsin town (population of 1,500), where he has lived most of his life. As we talked, horse-drawn buggies from the local Amish community rolled past a small outpost of stores, on their way to nearby farms.

The libertarian Bauch was one of the few in rural Wisconsin who didn’t support Trump in 2016, saying he reminded him of an arrogant boss. But after the election, he began to see the president’s outspoken style as an antidote to Washington’s pervasive corruption.

“I love the fact that everyone is being held accountable,” said Bauch, who now laments not recognizing the president’s potential. “Everyone is dotting their I’s and crossing their T’s because he’s going to call them out.”

He plans to vote for Trump next year.

Trump can win reelection in a number of ways: He could win back moderates in the suburbs, make inroads with black and Hispanic men or persuade white working-class women not to abandon him. He could also reassemble, almost to the voter, the razor-thin but winning coalition he built in 2016.

But perhaps the most likely way the president can win next November — and the way Republicans are already preparing in earnest for him to pursue — is with voters like Bauch, in rural regions of key battleground states, who didn’t back Trump in 2016 but are inclined to do so now.

“Are there more low propensity rural voters to add? Is there more meat on the bone?” said Mike Shields, a former chief of staff at the Republican National Committee. “The answer is yes. And the data backs it up.”

When Trump won in 2016, he did so by delivering shock landslide in rural America. But rather than see his breakthrough as a high-water mark, the GOP wants more. And although it won’t be easy, Republicans insist — and Democrats privately agree — Trump can get there in places like rural Wisconsin.

Democrats are taking the threat seriously. It’s why various arms of the party, even before the party selects a nominee, have launched their own counter-effort in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida — dead-set on running the kind of effective campaign in these places they say was missing during the last presidential election.

And although it’s terrain where Trump has a distinct advantage, Republicans (often quietly) make one more point about his effort with rural voters: If Trump fails to increase his margins with rural voters, he likely loses reelection.

“He needs to increase it. There’s no doubt about it,” said Scott Walker, the former Republican governor of Wisconsin. “Because Hillary Clinton underperformed in Milwaukee.”

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CLOSING THE GAP

Jim Ryczek doesn’t like Trump, but he does marvel at how the president talks. The 71-year-old retiree had arrived at this bar in Mauston, a small town located an hour’s drive north of Madison, to talk politics and eat a lunch of pizza and cheese curds with a dozen fellow Democrats — many of whom sipped on Bloody Marys with beer chasers.

Soon the conversation turned the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, and the bombastic way Trump had spoken of it just a few hours earlier. Ryzcek shook his head: If Barack Obama had announced al-Baghdadi’s death, he said, the former president would have emphasized its “geopolitical” implications.

The Democrats, he added, simply don’t know how to talk to their friends and neighbors — but Trump does.

“Trump just said, ‘He’s a bad son of a bitch, and we got him,’” Ryczek said, eliciting murmurs of agreement from the other Democrats.

Democrats readily acknowledge that even a well-crafted, perfectly executed strategy to win over rural voters will likely only reduce his support by a few percentage points. Trump’s connection with those voters, combined with a decades-long political realignment that has made Democrats increasingly suburban and urban, make any other outcome a near impossibility.

But they also say they have no other choice: Fail to make a real effort with rural voters, and the party’s presidential nominee will suffer the same fate as Clinton. Take Juneau County, for example, where Ryczek and other Democrats gathered for lunch.

In 2008 and 2012, Obama won it twice, with 54 percent and 53 percent of the vote, respectively.

But Clinton managed just 35 percent of the vote there in 2016. And even if her raw margin of defeat was just 3,000 votes, she faced a similar steep drop in support across much of rural, northern Wisconsin — enough (combined with an underwhelming showing in the Democratic hub of Milwaukee) for her to narrowly lose the state by about 23,000 votes.

“If we want to win in 2020, we cannot afford to ignore this segment of the electorate and hope for the best,” said Shripal Shah, vice president of the Democratic super PAC American Bridge. “We have to cut into his margins and close the gap.”

Of the Democrats’ many rural-focused initiatives launched after 2016, American Bridge’s effort is the most significant: The group said it plans to spend tens of millions of dollars on advertisements, focused on the top 2020 battlegrounds of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

American Bridge has a specific message in mind, too: Ignore the cultural argument, and focus entirely on the economic consequences of the Trump administration. And instead of relying on the usual format for political ads — a narrator with an ominous voice, paid actors, and gray-tinted footage — it’s set out to find real Trump voters in 2016 now eager to speak out against the president.

The mission is boosted by the internal view at American Bridge that Trump’s policy agenda has been uniquely harmful to rural voters: tax cuts that most benefited wealthy Americans who live elsewhere, a health care bill that would have removed protections in an area where the safety net is already threadbare and a trade war with China that has hammered farmers.

In footage of one potential ad shared with McClatchy, a Pennsylvania man who says he voted for Trump in 2016 has since changed his mind about the president, bemoaning his tweets and push to repeal the Affordable Care Act before vowing to vote Democratic in 2020.

American Bridge officials say their assessment of the rural battlegrounds led them to conclude that most of the voters most likely to defect from Trump in 2020 are white, middle-aged, and married — and have some history of voting for Democrats in their past, whether for Obama or someone like Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

There aren’t enough of those voters to replicate Obama’s margins in rural Wisconsin, American Bridge officials reiterate, but even small reductions would devastate Trump.

“If we can get him down in some of these places to 81, 80 percent ... again, that sounds like he’s blowing us out, but that’s the difference between him winning and losing,” said Elan Kriegel, a Democratic data analyst who studied Wisconsin’s rural electorate as part of the American Bridge project.

Of course, American Bridge’s ads, and their exclusive focus on Trump, side-step one critical component of the battle for the rural vote: the Democratic nominee. If there’s one reason GOP strategists are confident Trump can maintain and expand his margin with these voters, it’s because they see the leading Democratic contenders, including candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, as the sort of coastal liberals hopelessly unable to connect in the heartland.

Others aren’t so sure the problem is their candidates swinging left. The Democrats gathered in Mauston, for instance, blamed Juneau County’s poor performance on defections from Bernie Sanders supporters, who were furious at the Democratic primary process and uninspired by Clinton.

The idea that Sanders would make the most formidable Trump foe in rural Wisconsin has at least one surprising Republican advocate.

“I worry about him the most because I think a lot of voters, particularly in the bubble, forget it’s more about a gut check than a policy list,” said Walker, the former governor, who emphasized that rural voters would be drawn to Trump’s authenticity and anti-establishment moxie. “It’s a gut-check thing.”

Back in Mauston, the pizza had gone cold but the Democrats kept talking about local politics, next year’s national convention in Milwaukee, and, of course, Trump. Ryczek recalled how back in 2016 he would make the two-and-a-half hour drive between Juneau County and Green Bay and see nothing but Trump signs, calling it “obvious” that Clinton was in trouble.

I asked the group whether they thought, three years after Trump won overwhelmingly in this county, Democrats would be able to do any better next November. About half of those left sitting around the table said they thought their party would.

The other half weren’t so sure.

“It’d be marginal,” Ryzcek said. “Not as much as people think.”

TRADE WAR FALLOUT

Rural America is sometimes talked about as if it’s one big farm. That’s a mistake; it’s a region where often many of the jobs are in health care, manufacturing and many of the same businesses that are found everywhere else in the country.

But agriculture is still the region’s most important industry. And because of that, Trump might have reason to worry.

The president’s trade war with China, one that has exacted the highest price the country’s agricultural industry, has been the subject of endless political analysis, all asking whether the nation’s farmers will revolt against Trump.

In interviews with Republicans and Democrats, however, a surprising consensus emerged: Trump is as popular as ever in the farming community, nearly all of which is happy to deal with some short-term financial loss because they’re happy an American president is taking on China.

But they also say if Trump doesn’t make real, tangible progress on a trade deal by this time next year, the political consequences in that same community could be disastrous.

“He’s getting close to where he’s gotta get some deals done,” said Tony Kurtz, a Republican state lawmaker who represents a mostly rural district that includes Mauston. Kurtz, who is also an organic farmer, met me one morning at a Starbucks, before he was to return home and harvest his own crops.

“Anybody can put up with a little temporary pain, but now the pain’s … you’re getting toward the end, people are in the field combining, getting their crops, and now they’re getting some checks in the mail and it’s, ‘Now wait a minute,’” he said.

Kurtz emphasized he thought the farming community was still fully behind the president and praised deals he’s struck to lower agricultural tariffs with other countries, like Japan. (Kurtz attended a White House ceremony in October to celebrate the signing of that trade deal.)

But increased tariffs in China aren’t the only problem Trump has with farmers in Wisconsin. In one of the most significant missteps of the still very early 2020 election, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told a Madison audience of dairy farmer in October that small to mid-sized dairy farms might simply not survive.

Wisconsin Republicans said Perdue’s comments were still reverberating across the state a month later.

“It’s not helpful at all,” Walker said. “I like Sonny. Sonny has a great farm background, a veterinarian. I just don’t think that’s helpful.”

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OLD SCHOOL MEETS NEW SCHOOL

Still, Walker and Kurtz are both bullish overall about Trump’s ability to expand his base of support in rural Wisconsin. They cite the economy’s strength, Democrats’ fixation on suburban and urban voters, and the president’s preternatural ability to define his opponents.

They also point to what is, in their view, a massive, well-prepared and highly motivated political apparatus — operated by the Trump campaign, Republican National Committee and Wisconsin Republican Party — that they believe will extract every last possible rural vote.

In Eau Claire, the largest town in northwest Wisconsin, members of that apparatus attended a “Women for Trump” event in a small hotel ballroom, instructing the two dozen Trump supporters on hand how best to register new voters (don’t collect Social Security numbers, they warned) and use social media (tweet #stopthemadness to speak out against the impeachment effort against the president, they advised).

It’s part of an effort for the GOP to train as many as 60,000 so-called “fellows” by the end of the campaign, a kind of super volunteer who can help coordinate outreach efforts all over the country. In 2016, an RNC spokeswoman said the Trump campaign had just 5,000 such people, an indication of just how much time, effort, and resources the campaign plans put into the re-election campaign, particularly in battleground states.

“We’ve been there early,” said Mandi Merritt, RNC spokeswoman for Wisconsin, in an interview before the event. “We’ve never left.”

Wisconsin Republicans say their ability to spend years preparing for re-election with an incumbent president is a luxury Democrats simply don’t have, arguing their combination of money and data gives them a big edge. And it’s helped fund, they say, a sophisticated outreach effort that focused heavily on rural Wisconsin, where — like many rural areas — canvassers have traditionally shied away from because of the logistical challenges.

“What we’re trying to do here is marry the latest technology and tactics with old-school retail politics,” said Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party. “And I don’t know that we’ve ever done that particularly effectively in the past, but we’re getting better.”

“It’s one thing to go grab a bed sheet that says ‘Trump’ and hang it off a local bridge,” he continued. “It’s another use the walk app and hit those targeted voters and have a conversation and win them over. We’re trying to add structure and point that enthusiasm into a more useful direction.”

Every campaign and every political party brag about their data and outreach efforts. And in this case, Wisconsin Democrats and the Democratic National Committee counter that they’ve made their own unprecedented effort to reach out to rural voters, and scoff at the notion the GOP’s data is any more useful than their own.

Still, Republicans are emphatic that driving up the rural vote is a top priority.

“If we can increase our rural margins in that part of the state,” Jefferson said, “I think we can offset any additional margins or enthusiasm they can put up in their base areas.”

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ON A KNIFE EDGE

Most political operatives in Wisconsin say they’re genuinely unsure what will happen during next year’s race, either overall or among rural voters.

Many seem to think that, one year out, the state is in almost the exact same place it was in 2016, when Trump won so narrowly. Still, some Republicans quietly fear Trump has already lost too much support in the Milwaukee suburbs, while other Democrats speculate that the president could increase his margin with rural voters by as much as five points per rural county in 2020.

“It certainly doesn’t feel any different at this point than it did going into 2016,” said one senior Democratic strategist, granted anonymity to speak candidly. “You don’t get the sense, oh, everyone has woken up and all the Trump supporters have realized their mistake.”

In Augusta, Bauch feels like he did make a mistake, but only because he didn’t vote for Trump in 2016. He dismisses accusations of misogyny and racism against Trump and says Obama gutted the country’s health care system — though he does express reservations about any removal of protections for pre-existing conditions.

When I ask about accusations that the president withheld military aide to Ukraine in exchange for allegations of corruption against Joe Biden, Trump’s potential foe, Bauch says that Trump was vindicated because Hunter Biden was resigned from a Chinese firm. Maybe Trump is corrupt too, he added, but at least he’s willing to call others out for their own corruption.

“That’s the feeling I get,” Bauch said. “He’s not going in with a surgical blade; he’s going in with an axe. And everyone is uneasy, everyone is on the edge of their seat. And maybe they should be.”

He said he’s talked a pair of friends who didn’t back the president in 2016 into voting for Trump next year.

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Alex Roarty has written about the Democratic Party since joining McClatchy in 2017. He’s been a campaigns reporter in Washington since 2010, after covering politics and state government in Pennsylvania during former Gov. Ed Rendell’s second term.
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