Madison Club panel

Republican strategist Keith Gilkes (left), Democratic operative Tanya Bjork and pollster Charles Franklin talk about the 2020 election Tuesday at an event sponsored by WisPolitics.com.  

After shoring up the Republican base and taking advantage of the power of incumbency, Donald Trump has the edge.

No wait, after two years of government chaos and spiteful tweets, Democrats are going to vote him out.

Welcome to the 2020 presidential campaign, a preview of which was hosted Tuesday by WisPolitics.com, the state’s website for political wonks, at the Madison Club.

Taking part in a look ahead at the epic battle to come was Republican strategist and former Scott Walker campaign manager Keith Gilkes, Tanya Bjork, a veteran of Democratic presidential and gubernatorial campaigns, and Marquette Law School Poll director Charles Franklin.

It’s not surprising that the two operatives had different takes on Donald Trump’s chances in Wisconsin. But they, with Franklin, are on the same page about Wisconsin’s importance on Election Day.

Franklin pointed out that Trump’s 2016 win in Wisconsin was enough to lock up the presidency, even if he hadn't obliterated the rest of the so-called Democratic firewall, Michigan and Pennsylvania, which he took by narrow margins.

On the other hand, if the rest of the electoral map remains unchanged, Democrats need all three states in 2020.

“Either way you look at it, we at the moment are right in the pivot point,” said Franklin.

That goes a long way in explaining Trump’s focus on Wisconsin — he fired up supporters in Green Bay last month in his 18th political rally in Wisconsin since 2015 — and Democrats’ decision to hold the Democratic Convention in Milwaukee.

Bjork said Democrats’ failure to rally state voters — Hillary Clinton never set foot in the state in 2016 — could well have doomed Clinton’s campaign.

"Wisconsin, for presidential politics, at least for Democrats, is always a key state,” she said. “And we learned that, unfortunately, in 2016 by not focusing on Wisconsin the way we should have. That’s not going to happen again, I assure you.”

As to the benefits of the Democratic Convention, she said the mere fact of it doesn’t mean more Democratic voters will turn out. But it will fuel Democratic field operations by activating a volunteer base.

“From an organizing perspective, it’s huge,” Bjork said. “This convention is going to need between 15,000 and 20,000 volunteers to make it run right. As somebody who’s run a lot of presidential campaigns before, if you were to tell me that we will have an organized and trained and energized group of 20,000 volunteers in July, suited up and ready to go, I’ll tell you that’s a big deal.”

Gilkes sees Wisconsin more as one of a Big 10 lineup of Midwestern states — competitive states like Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa and Minnesota.

“Those are the states that are going to decide the president of the United State next go-round,” he said.

Gilkes said one of the key factors Trump has on his side, at least for now, is the good economy, an area for which 51 percent of voters gave him credit in recent polls.

“If the economy is going well, so goes the campaign for an incumbent president,” he said.

Not necessarily, said Franklin.

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Low unemployment and a growing economy is a boon for any sitting president, he said. But in today’s topsy-turvy political world, even that dynamic is changing. For instance, the economy was doing well on Oct. 31, 2016, yet polling showed that Republicans had soured on the nation’s economic prospects. On Nov. 10, after Trump’s election, they were “shockingly positive,” Franklin said. The opposite was true of Democrats.

“It shows that people are filtering their views of the economy so much more strongly through partisanship now than they did in the past,” he said.

Part of Trump’s advantage is that he can travel to battleground states and connect with voters while Democrats are still duking it out for the nomination. With 21 Democrats running so far, it’s anyone’s guess who’s going to win the nomination. But the sudden frontrunner status of former Vice President Joe Biden has shaken things up.

“He’s doing a lot better than I thought he would be right out of the gate,” Bjork said. “But I think longevity remains to be seen for a lot of these candidates.”

She said the crowded Democratic field with more than a year to the primary is a good thing. She noted that the last governor’s race in Wisconsin had a large Democratic field as well, and the Democratic nominee won.

“It gives us a lot of time for missteps to be uncovered before people don’t have a choice of candidates,” she said.

Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and California Sen. Kamala Harris will likely remain in the top tier because they are raising the most money.

But a surprise candidate, said Franklin, is moving into the top tier in key states: Pete Buttigieg, the young, charismatic gay mayor South Bend, Indiana.

While Warren and Harris maintain third and fourth positions in national polling, in some early primary and caucus states, namely Iowa and New Hampshire, Buttigieg has vaulted from fifth to third place.

“So in these early states where arguably people are inundated and possibly paying more attention and are more engaged,” Franklin said, “you see a little bit of a different pattern than we’re seeing in national polls.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.