There’s something afoot in Michigan and Wisconsin. If you believe the polls, former Vice President Joe Biden is set to win both these states in November—battlegrounds President Donald Trump narrowly carried in 2016, and can ill afford to lose this time around.
Some pollsters say Biden is ahead by as much as 17 points in Wisconsin and a dozen points in Michigan, suggesting the Democrats have rebuilt their so-called “blue wall” in the industrial Midwest. If that’s true, the president’s path to reelection is in jeopardy. But then, the same pollsters also put Hillary Clinton comfortably ahead in both states just four years ago.
We just spent a week driving through Michigan and Wisconsin, talking with farmers, bartenders, politicians, priests, and ordinary voters, from suburban Detroit to western Wisconsin, and what we saw and heard left us with a very different impression: Trump’s support here is not reflected in the polls, and he might well win both states.
Just north of Detroit in Macomb County, which twice voted for Barack Obama but flipped for Trump four years ago, there were few signs of a robust Democratic ground game. We talked to one bar owner, a Democrat who volunteered for Obama’s reelection, who told us he’s worried Trump might win here again—not just because Trump supporters are so motivated, but because the neighbors and customers who tell him they’re not voting for Trump don’t seem excited about Biden.
— The Federalist (@FDRLST) October 6, 2020
Macomb County is where the term “Reagan Democrat” was popularized by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who tracked the shift of white, working-class Democrats into the GOP from the 1960s to the 1980s. But after the county twice voted for Obama by wide margins, Greenberg and others wrote off the entire concept of Reagan Democrats, arguing that ideological sorting in American politics was mostly finished.
That analysis proved wrong—or at least it did for Macomb County, where Trump won in 2016 by a whopping 48,000 votes, helping him carry Michigan by less than 11,000 ballots. It was also wrong in Saginaw County about a hundred miles to the northwest, a working-class area that went for Obama by a dozen points but narrowly swung to Trump four years later.
What Macomb and Saginaw have in common is a heavy union presence. Although the UAW officially endorsed Biden in April, and a UAW spokesman assured us Trump doesn’t enjoy any more support among union members than Mitt Romney or John McCain did, the local GOP office in Saginaw told us they have a steady stream of union workers coming in and declaring they’ll be voting Trump.
— The Federalist (@FDRLST) October 27, 2020
We encountered the same in Wisconsin, where Trump is making up for a loss of support among college-educated women by continuing to mobilize working-class voters across the state as he did in 2016—seemingly even in overwhelmingly Democratic urban areas like Milwaukee.
We didn’t expect Trump support in deep-blue Milwaukee, but we found it stopping for a late dinner at a German restaurant downtown where an NBA playoff game played behind the bar. Like a lot of businesses downtown, the place was nearly empty thanks to newly reinstated COVID-19 restrictions. Shortly after we sat down, a pair of middle-aged men came in and asked somewhat sheepishly if it would be alright to turn on the vice presidential debate. “We don’t have a candidate,” one of them promised, “we just want to watch.” There was no protest from the few bar patrons, so on it went.
Over the next half-hour it became clear everyone at the bar was a Trump supporter, save a young barback. Before long, the group was openly booing Sen. Kamala Harris and pouring shots for Vice President Mike Pence.
That same night, the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa shook with a Black Lives Matter riot that left shattered storefront windows and frightened residents. The rioters were angry that the district attorney had not criminally indicted an officer who fatally shot an armed black teenager back in February, and community business owners understood their frustrations, but also expressed anger at the destruction in their quiet town.
Wauwatosa and the counties surrounding Milwaukee are changing, they said, becoming more diverse, and in the process moving left. These are communities that once supported the more buttoned-up GOP of former House Speaker Paul Ryan, whose politics were more palatable to college-educated suburbanites.
"Hillary Clinton took Wisconsin for granted. Unfortunately for the Democrats, that does not appear to have changed."
— The Federalist (@FDRLST) October 16, 2020
But where Trump is losing ground in suburbs, he’s gaining among the farmers, blue-collar workers, and rural residents of the Badger State. In the rolling dairy country north of Milwaukee, the dairymen aren’t deterred by a costly trade war: The president fought hard for fair competition, they say, and third-generation farmers understand the long game.
Further north still, in picturesque, lakeside Door County, a local Democratic store owner hopes his party can take back the county Obama won twice. But just as we heard in Michigan, he worries Biden’s invisible campaign is making the same mistakes an infamously absent Clinton made. In 2016, the state assemblyman told us, there wasn’t a Trump sign to be found. Today, they’re everywhere, and many who said they couldn’t vote for the brash New Yorker are now supportive.
In western Wisconsin, which helped Trump carry the state in 2016, the changing lines of the major parties were laid bare. At a pro-Trump ATV rally in Juneau County, which Obama won by a dozen points in 2012 and Trump won by three times that in 2016, the lone politician stood out in a crowd of beer drinkers and Trump flags. These voters weren’t the political type before, the one-time Obama voter who organized the rally told us. And they sure didn’t have any boat parades for Romney.
Our travels through the Michigan and Wisconsin counties that helped shake the country are admittedly anecdotal, but Trump energy—and a lack of Biden excitement—was everywhere, and enough to cast serious doubt on what the pundits are once again claiming. Trump faces strong headwinds in Wisconsin’s cities and suburbs, and his margins remain razor-thin in Michigan, but anyone who assumes these Midwestern swing states are a lock for Biden should think twice—and not rely so heavily on the polls.