/The fight for swing-state Wisconsin takes a turn away from Trump

The fight for swing-state Wisconsin takes a turn away from Trump

The arrows are pointing the wrong way for President Donald Trump as he returns to Wisconsin Thursday amid clear signs his political standing has deteriorated in a season of protests and pandemic.   

Trump trails Joe Biden by eight points in a new Wisconsin poll released Wednesday by the Marquette Law School, whose previous surveys had found the race consistently close since last fall.  

Trump trails Biden by 11 points in a new Wisconsin poll released Thursday by New York Times/Siena College.

And he trailed Biden by 9 points in a Wisconsin survey released earlier this month by Fox News.

Three legitimate, respected polls all tell the same story: the president has fallen significantly behind Biden in a state he narrowly carried four years ago and where his approval ratings have consistently been better than they are nationally.

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It’s the same story the national polls are telling too, giving it that much more credence.  

Wisconsin has long been a vital state for Democrats. But these days it is now more important to Republicans than ever because the party has lost ground in other key regions of the country. And because the foundation of Trump’s coalition — white voters without college degrees — is a disproportionate share of the Wisconsin electorate.

Trump’s erosion in Wisconsin has occurred in tandem with his slippage nationally, amid disapproval of his handling of the coronavirus crisis and the uproar over policing and race.

More:Trump heads to Wisconsin for visit to another crucial swing state as polls show him trailing Biden

The New York Times and Siena College polled five other top battlegrounds as well, and found Biden leading by 11 points in Michigan, 10 in Pennsylvania, 9 in North Carolina, 7 in Arizona and 6 in Florida. All six states voted for Trump in 2016. His victories in the three Great Lakes swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania came by less than a point — and sealed his electoral victory.   

The Marquette polling points to three overlapping problem areas for Trump in the Wisconsin electorate – all suggesting erosion around his political base.

  • Gender: Biden’s gains in Wisconsin have come entirely among men (he has consistently held a big lead among women). In fact, the gender gap has narrowed in the latest poll largely because of Trump’s slippage among male voters. In the first four polls Marquette conducted this year, Biden trailed Trump by an average of 18 points among men. But Biden and Trump were tied among men in Wisconsin in the new polls by Marquette and the New York Times/Siena.
  • Geography. Trump’s victory four years ago was forged mainly in the northeastern, western and northern regions of the state. Trump won the areas outside the Milwaukee and Madison TV markets (home to 51 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties) by 15 points against Hillary Clinton. But in the Marquette poll, he’s now slightly behind in those same combined regions.
  • Party. Trump’s party is no longer as united as Biden’s party. In Marquette’s polling, Trump has gone from winning 92% of the Republican vote earlier this year to winning 83%, while Biden is winning 97% of the Democratic vote. In the New York Times poll, Biden is winning 96% of Democrats while Trump is winning 86% of Republicans. That disparity in base support, combined with Biden’s lead among independents, explains Biden’s expanding margin in the state. The Marquette poll also suggests Biden’s party is more energized right now, with 72% of Democrats saying they’re “very enthusiastic” about the election compared to 61% of Republicans.

In both of these new surveys, voters give Trump positive marks on the economy but negative marks on the twin crises that have rocked the country this year.  The president’s approval rating is 50% on handling the economy but 44% on handling coronavirus and 30% on handling the protests in the Marquette poll. Even 20% of Republican voters disapprove of Trump’s handling of the protests, as do 60% of independents and 96% of Democrats.    

The polls come as Trump returns to Wisconsin for the first time since holding a large rally in Milwaukee in January. This time he will visit a Marinette shipyard and tape a town hall in Green Bay with Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity. The president’s trip follows a visit Tuesday by Vice President Mike Pence to Waukesha County. In both those key regions for the GOP — the outer Milwaukee suburbs and the Green Bay media market — Trump is running well behind his performance in the 2016 election. 

The Marquette survey underscores how the president’s base has narrowed in this moment. One of the few groups he still dominates is born-again Protestants, but they represent less than a fifth of the voters in Wisconsin. Trump leads among self-described rural voters by 6 points — about half the margin he held earlier this year. And his margin among white men without college degrees is a lot smaller (14 points) than it was in Marquette’s first four 2020 polls (29 points).

All these numbers are symptomatic of the broad national shift away from the president in recent weeks. The contest in Wisconsin had been close dating back to last fall, with Biden averaging a lead of about two points since November in Marquette’s polling. But battlegrounds only look like battlegrounds when the national political environment is competitive.   

RELATED:Trump and Pence visits underscore the GOP’s need to shore up the base in Wisconsin

Four years ago, Trump consistently trailed in the Wisconsin polling. But exit polls suggest that at the end of the campaign, many voters who disliked both Trump and Clinton swung Trump’s way.  Could Trump again defy the election-year polling? Perhaps, but one key difference between then and now is that Biden is more popular (or less unpopular) than Clinton. Another is that Trump is now the incumbent president, putting him at the center of the election to a greater degree than he was in 2016.

In the New York Times poll, four in five Trump voters in Wisconsin said their vote was more of a vote for Trump than against Biden. But almost six in 10 Biden voters said their vote was more of a vote against Trump than for Biden. While that suggests that passion for Biden is limited, it also means that for most voters right now, the election is much more about Trump than his opponent.

That election is still more than four months away. These current polls measure the contest among registered voters. When the polls start reporting the race among likely voters. Biden’s lead could become smaller. The president could narrow the gap with Biden in Wisconsin merely by fully unifying GOP voters and recovering his previous edge among white men.

But overcoming Biden’s lead is a bigger challenge. And for the president, it may require not just solidifying his voting base but broadening it.

Craig Gilbert is the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Washington Bureau Chief and longtime political writer.

Craig Gilbert has covered every presidential campaign since 1988 and chronicled Wisconsin’s role as a swing state at the center of the nation’s political divide. He has written widely about polarization and voting trends and won distinction for his data-driven analysis. Gilbert has served as a writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a Lubar Fellow at Marquette Law School and a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where he studied public opinion, survey research, voting behavior and statistics. Email him at craig.gilbert@jrn.com and follow him on Twitter: @WisVoter.