Trump heads to Wisconsin as both parties prepare for an epic 2020 election fight

When President Donald Trump comes to Green Bay on Saturday, he’ll be visiting a prime battleground region of a prime battleground state.

He’ll be returning to a place that helped send him to the White House and a place that will help decide whether he stays there.

“If it says anything to you, this will be his 18th (campaign) rally in Wisconsin … since 2015,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director of the Trump re-election campaign. “We intend to win again where President Trump won in 2016, and naturally that includes Wisconsin.”

Both parties in Wisconsin are bracing for an epic struggle. Both have won enough battles here to think (or hope) they have the upper hand. But both have been humbled often enough to carry a healthy fear of defeat.

“I think the people who have been through this enough know this is going to be a slog. … Clearly, the Supreme Court election (April 2) reinforced the fact we’re a toss-up state, we’re a purple state. It’s all going to be about, in so manyways, the choice (in 2020), and it’s all going to be about who the electorate is,” said Chuck Pruitt, a longtime Democratic strategist who was closely involved in both of Barack Obama’s national campaigns.

“It is easy to do the totally Pollyanna analysis that we only lost by 20,000 votes (in 2016), Democratic turnout was really low, Hillary Clinton never showed up, so there’s no problem” retaking Wisconsin in 2020, said Diane Feldman, a Democratic pollster who has done statewide races in Wisconsin. But she doesn’t think it’s that simple, citing the great unknown in the race (who her party’s nominee will be), the classic imponderables about who turns out next year and Wisconsin’s penchant for political suspense, with three of the past five presidential races decided by less than a percentage point.

“There is no way you can look at it and not think this is going to be a close race,” said GOP strategist Stephan Thompson, whose party broke a long presidential losing streak in Wisconsin in 2016, then suffered demoralizing losses for U.S. Senate and governor in 2018, then was buoyed this month by an upset conservative victory for the state’s highest court. (Thompson ran that race).

Negative job ratings

Trump has very real assets in the 2020 campaign he didn’t have last time. Incumbency, combined with a good economy, is historically an electoral boon to presidents.

“We think the (key) difference this time is that the president has a record of achievements to run on and chief among them probably is the economy,” said Murtaugh of the Trump campaign.

But the picture is complicated by Trump’s capacity to electrify voters on both sides —those who love him and those who hate him — and his persistently negative approval ratings.

The president’s job ratings are a bit better in Wisconsin than they are nationally, and they will probably have to be for him to win the state a second time. In a statewide survey released this month by the Marquette Law School, 46% of registered voters approved of his performance and 52% disapproved. Those were among his better numbers in more than two years of polling by Marquette.

But Trump’s approval has been perpetually “underwater” in Wisconsin and nationally (meaning more people disapprove than approve). His job ratings here are markedly worse than Obama’s were in Obama’s re-election year. They are also worse than those of GOP Gov. Scott Walker going into Walker’s 2018 re-election — which Walker lost. Trump’s problems with certain segments of the electorate (women, college grads, young and minority voters) are undiminished.

The president’s high negatives make him especially reliant on the votes of people who don’t like him, don’t trust him or simply have very mixed feelings about him — but still might vote for him. In the last Marquette poll, only 35% of Wisconsin voters said they thought Trump was honest. Only 45% viewed him favorably. Only 42% said they would definitely or probably vote for him if the election were today.

In other words, to get to the 48% or 49% or 50% he will need to win in Wisconsin (depending on how many votes go to third-party candidates), Trump must persuade a fair number of seriously conflicted voters to support him, including many people who are satisfied with the way things are going and like many of his policies but dislike his behavior.

The good news…

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