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Rural Wisconsin delivered big for Donald Trump in 2016. Will it do so again?
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Rural Wisconsin delivered big for Donald Trump in 2016. Will it do so again?

From the Follow the Wisconsin State Journal's 2020 presidential election coverage series
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MERRILL — Two hundred forty miles away from the civil unrest in Kenosha and even farther from Washington, where Donald Trump accepted his party’s nomination this week, voters in northern Wisconsin are mulling whether to give the Republican president a second term.

The region was an important component of Trump’s narrow 2016 Wisconsin victory, but amid a pandemic, high unemployment and strife over racial injustice, a similar margin of victory for the president in the state’s most sparsely populated region isn’t guaranteed against former Vice President and Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

In 2016, Trump won the northern and western regions of the state, as well as areas not considered to be part of the Madison, Milwaukee or Green Bay metro areas, with 53% of the vote compared with 41% for Hillary Clinton and 6% for other candidates.

The latest Marquette Law School Poll from early August shows Trump and Biden both with 46% support and other candidates taking 8%. The last poll before the 2016 election had Trump beating Clinton in the area 47-38 with 15% support for other candidates or undecided.

But recent events could still sway voters before the Nov. 3 election. During this week’s Republican National Convention, Trump stoked fear and anger over the civil unrest occurring in Kenosha.

Dick Hass, a 74-year-old retired dairy farmer from Merrill, once considered himself a Republican, but couldn’t bring himself to vote for either major party candidate in 2016 and opted for a third party.

He said he’s backing Biden this year, but he’s also concerned about the destruction he’s seen in Oregon this summer and in Kenosha this week after the police shooting of Jacob Blake.

“I just think (the mayor and governor) should have taken a stronger stance … before it got out of hand,” Hass said. “Once it got out of hand, it’s hard to stop it all.”

Marquette polling data show support for the Black Lives Matter movement declined more notably over the summer in the parts of Wisconsin outside Madison, Milwaukee and Green Bay than elsewhere. Net approval for the Black Lives Matter movement declined from a net positive 14 percentage points to a net negative 20 between June and August in the outstate region.

Trump voters, more so than Biden voters, said they have trouble with the rioting and looting that occurred during some of last week’s protests.

“I do not support any of the riots,” said 39-year-old Mike Bronsteatter, a Merrill business owner who works in landscaping, snow removal and CBD products. “All they want to do is create chaos, and mayhem, and that’s not what this country is built on.”

Bronsteatter voted for Barack Obama in 2008 because he wanted change, but voted Republican in 2012, believing that Obama was more talk than action. He voted for Trump in 2016 and plans to do so again.

Sticking with Trump

In Lincoln County, a swing county just north of Wausau that voted 57% for Trump in 2016 but 55% for Obama in 2008, many voters interviewed this week said they don’t plan to deviate from how they voted in 2016.

Voters for Trump say they’re generally happy with his performance, even if they were unsure about him four years ago. And those who voted for Clinton in 2016 say they’ll back Biden this year, driven by concerns over COVID-19, a divided country and the integrity of the president.

Carla Schmidt, a 71-year-old retired secretary lunching with friends at a cafe in Merrill, voted for Trump in 2016 and plans to do so again this year. She, too, voted for Obama, but was disappointed in his presidency.

“We didn’t feel like he did enough when he was in office, and a lot of it seemed to revolve around color,” Schmidt said. “That’s not what we’re all about. To me, we’re all the same color.”

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Schmidt added she was turned off by Democrats being too negative. She’s been happy with her health care and financial situation over the Trump years, and worries Biden will raise taxes.

“I don’t necessarily like Donald Trump’s personality, but I don’t really care for Biden either, so I think we’re leaning towards Trump because I feel he’s getting things done,” Schmidt said. “I don’t think that he needs to take the blame for everything that they’re blaming him for. I think they’d blame him if the grass turned brown.”

Brian Marx, a 43-year-old heating and cooling professional from Rib Lake, in Taylor County to the west of Lincoln, said he’s long been a Republican and had trouble voting for Trump in 2016, though he did so anyway. Four years ago, he said he was concerned with whether Trump was really a conservative, but doesn’t have that concern anymore.

Some voters, such as Wausau realtor Danielle O’Shaughnessy, 32, are warming to Trump after voting third party in 2016. O’Shaughnessy voted for Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson in 2016 because she wasn’t sure where Trump really stood politically.

But four years later, she says she’s happy with his support for capitalism and tax cuts.

Biden voters want ‘decency’

Hans Breitenmoser, a Lincoln County supervisor and dairy farmer who is voting for Biden, said the issues driving his vote are reducing the influence of money in politics and ending gerrymandering.

He thinks Biden has appeal because of his “low drama” style, and hopes voters in his area are hungry for that.

“I hope that people are interested in politics for the sake of policy, not for its entertainment value,” Breitenmoser said, who compared today’s politics to low-brow reality television. “But I think that we are at a place in our culture and in our history where politics is a spectator sport.”

Robert VanDerGeest, a 71-year-old retired factory worker and former union member who plans to vote for Biden, said he also wants a candidate who prioritizes the truth “instead of putting on a phony front that everything is fine.”

Anthony Erba, a 57-year-old retiree from Cable, in far northwestern Bayfield County, a blue county that has been trending more Republican in recent years, said he plans to vote for Biden after voting for Clinton in 2016. He said he’s particularly taken issue with what he considers to be Trump’s lack of empathy.

“What has been most disturbing is his view on how humanity is treated, whether that be international leaders, or people seeking asylum in our country, immigration, even people within our own country,” Erba said.

Erbas

Anthony Erba, 57, and Vikki Erba, 56, of Cable, talk politics at a picnic table in Hayward, a town in northern Sawyer County, which has gone for both Barack Obama and Donald Trump. The Erbas say they're voting for Democrat Joe Biden this year and are concerned about Donald Trump's lack of empathy.

COVID-19 concerns

Voters’ reaction to COVID-19 varied, and there were both Trump and Biden supporters who didn’t name it as a top issue of concern.

In the most recent Marquette poll, 27% of respondents statewide said they were very concerned about COVID-19, and 36% said they were somewhat concerned.

Marge Schultz, a 74-year-old retiree from Merrill and a Biden supporter, said COVID-19 is a concern. She said her son-in-law and granddaughter contracted COVID-19, but weren’t very sick with it.

“It feels like a very dangerous time right now, and people aren’t addressing things,” Schultz said, adding that she worries for the kids returning to school this fall. “It seems like the president has denied that there is a virus.”

Marx, who said he doesn’t like wearing masks, said he believes COVID-19 is an issue particularly for older people, but thinks it’s been blown out of proportion for political reasons.

Brianna Haring, a 28-year-old supervisor and mother from Merrill who voted for Trump in 2016 and plans to do the same this year despite voting for Obama in 2012, agreed.

“It’s a big deal, but I don’t think it’s any different than the common flu,” she said.

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