2020 Democrats Head To Wisconsin Early, Looking To Reverse 2016 Stumble

Mar 3, 2019
Originally published on March 5, 2019 8:17 am

Here's something Democrats thought they knew during the last presidential campaign: Wisconsin was safe. It was a lock for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. But when the votes were counted, it was a stunning upset for Republican Donald Trump.

In 2020, Democrats apparently aren't taking the state for granted.

Even though the first nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire are some 11 months away, and with Wisconsin's primary not until April 7 of next year, the campaign stops have already begun.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar spoke to a packed bicycle shop and coffee house in Eau Claire two weeks ago. It was the first stop on her very first campaign trip since declaring her candidacy a week earlier. Klobuchar highlighted a family history in the Midwest, including Wisconsin.

"I do not come from money," the candidate began. "My mom was a teacher. My dad was a newspaperman. My grandpa was an iron ore miner, and those relatives in Wisconsin, during the Depression, my grandpa worked in a pie shop."

Heading to Eau Claire was a practical choice — it's not far from the Wisconsin border with Minnesota, Klobuchar's home state. Iowa is right next door as well.

There was also symbolism in the form of the message it sent to Democrats everywhere that a traditionally blue battleground won't be ignored this time.

Clinton's missed opportunity

In the 2016 election, the Clinton campaign had a relaxed approach to Wisconsin. From the time she accepted the nomination in late July right up to Election Day, Clinton never campaigned in the state in person. She made zero visits to the state in those crucial final months, leaving that task to surrogates.

Wisconsin delegates are seen during Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July 2016, where Hillary Clinton won the Democratic Party nomination for president.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images

The Democrats had pretty good reason to take that approach. After all, the last Republican to capture the state's electoral votes was President Ronald Reagan in '84 — and in 2016 the polls in the state pointed to that trend continuing.

"My poll and all 33 other polls in the state showed Clinton leading by an average of about 6 points," says pollster Charles Franklin of Marquette University Law School.

Still, Trump's campaign treated Wisconsin like a hotly contested battleground. He made repeated visits there in the final 100 days of the campaign. At a rally in the city Eau Claire in the western, more rural part of the state, he predicted, "In just one week we are going to win the great state of Wisconsin. And we are going to win back the White House. It's going to happen, folks."

Ultimately, Trump carried Wisconsin by just 22,177 votes — a winning margin of less than 1 percent. It was part of a trio of upsets in previously blue states that included Michigan and Pennsylvania — giving him the margin he needed to win the White House.

In December 2016, then-House Speaker Paul Ryan and Gov. Scott Walker gave President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence Green Bay Packers jerseys in honor of winning their home state of Wisconsin.
Morry Gash / AP

There are a lot of things factoring into that result, of course, but pollster Charles Franklin says two things happened. Trump did well in the rural western side of the state, a more Republican area, but one that Barack Obama had managed to carry. Plus, Franklin adds, turnout in the state's largest urban area, the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee, was significantly lower than expected. That resulted in fewer votes overall for Clinton in a big city where she needed to run up the score.

Upset victories in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania combined were key to Trump's electoral college victory.

Talk to everybody, everywhere

Democrats have been taking notes. Klobuchar hardly has Wisconsin to herself this time around. Another potential Democratic presidential hopeful dropped in recently, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke. At a tour of the Milwaukee Area Technical College, he said it's good that the state is getting attention. "Wisconsin — perhaps like other parts of the country, perhaps even including where I'm from in far west Texas — too often is overlooked," he said. O'Rourke said he's still deciding whether to enter the presidential race.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairperson Martha Laning says she's been hearing from other candidates about early visits to the state as well.

"It sends a message to the whole nation," Laning tells NPR. Of the candidates, she adds that it's evident that after what happened in 2016, "they're not going to take anything for granted and they're stopping by Wisconsin right now."

But Laning stresses that candidate visits are only part of it. Yes, there are lessons from Clinton's absence last time, but she acknowledges that the Wisconsin Democrats need to be better at reaching voters in every part of the state — urban and rural, blue and red.

Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Martha Laning meets Wisconsin Assembly candidate Ann Groves Lloyd in April 2018 in Portage, Wis. Laning notes that the 2018 midterms were a positive sign for Democrats.
Morry Gash / AP

She says the 2018 midterms were a good start, as it was a very strong Democratic year in Wisconsin. They easily re-elected Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, and they defeated Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who had been seeking a third term in office.

Laning says the lesson of 2016's defeat is that you need to talk to voters everywhere, and if you pick up an unexpected vote here or a vote there, it can make the difference when there's another election with a razor-thin margin.

Just ask President Trump.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper is the latest to join the race for president. That brings the total number of Democratic candidates to 14. They are logging hours in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina - also, Wisconsin, where Democrats are trying to rewrite their 2016 history. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Here's something Democrats thought they knew during the last presidential campaign - Wisconsin was safe. They had pretty good reason to feel that way. After all, the last Republican to carry the state was Ronald Reagan in '84. And in 2016, the polls in the state pointed to that trend continuing. Charles Franklin is the director of polling at the Marquette University Law School.

CHARLES FRANKLIN: My poll and all 33 other polls in the state showed Clinton leading by an average of about six points.

GONYEA: Still, Donald Trump's campaign treated Wisconsin like a hotly contested battleground.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: In just one week, we are going to win the great state of Wisconsin.

(APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: And we are going to win back the White House. It's going to happen, folks.

GONYEA: This is in the city of Eau Claire, in the rural, western part of the state. In the campaign's final 100 days, candidate Trump held five rallies in Wisconsin. In that same period, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton held none, zero, leaving the campaigning there to surrogates. There are certainly a lot of factors in the end result, but pollster Charles Franklin says two things happened.

FRANKLIN: The west of the state had gone for Obama twice and slipped to Trump. That's the rural areas of the state. Not a huge part of the population, but it's a significant one.

GONYEA: And he says Democrats were hurt by lower turnout than expected in the biggest urban area, Milwaukee. Trump won the state by less than 1 percent. It was part of a trio of upsets in previously blue states that included Michigan and Pennsylvania, giving him the margin he needed to win the White House.

Now to 2020. The first nominating contests are eleven months away. Wisconsin's primary isn't until April of next year. But already, the candidates are coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMY KLOBUCHAR: I am just so pleased to be in Wisconsin.

GONYEA: That's Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar. She kicked off her very first presidential campaign trip in Eau Claire. The choice was practical. Wisconsin borders club Klobuchar's home state, Minnesota, and Iowa is right next door. And it was symbolic, sending a message that a traditionally blue battleground won't be ignored this time, and all the better if a nominee has appeal there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KLOBUCHAR: I do not come from money. My mom was a teacher. My dad was a newspaperman. My grandpa was an iron ore miner. And those relatives in Wisconsin, during the Depression, my grandpa worked in a pie shop.

GONYEA: Klobuchar won't have the state to herself. Another potential competitor dropped in recently, former congressman Beto O'Rourke.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BETO O'ROURKE: Wisconsin, perhaps like other parts of the country, perhaps even including where I'm from, in far West Texas, too often is overlooked. The conversation does not begin until too late.

GONYEA: That's O'Rourke speaking at a technical college in Milwaukee. Wisconsin Democratic Party chairperson Martha Laning says she's been hearing from other candidates about early visits to the state, as well.

MARTHA LANING: It sends a message to the whole nation that that president knows what needs to be done to get elected, and they're not going to take anything for granted and they're stopping by Wisconsin right now.

GONYEA: But she stresses that candidate visits are only part of it. Yes, there are lessons from Hillary Clinton's absence last time, but Laning says the state party also needs to be better at reaching voters in every part of the state - urban and rural, blue and red. She says they did that in last year's midterms, and it was a strong Democratic year in Wisconsin, including defeating Republican Governor Scott Walker.

Laning adds, if you pick up an unexpected vote here, or a vote there, it can make the difference in another razor-thin contest - just ask President Trump. Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.