The key battleground of Wisconsin, which President Trump carried in 2016 by talking up trade, the economy and doubts about Hillary Clinton, is now awash in deep concern about violent crime, riots and protests — but voters aren’t favoring Mr. Trump on those issues even though he is pushing them hard, according to new polling from The New York Times and Siena College.
Worries about law and order have become so prevalent in the state that likely voters in the Times poll said the issue was just as important as solving the coronavirus pandemic, the public health disaster that has fueled economic distress, prompted schools to operate virtually and led to more than 1,200 deaths in the state, according to a Times database of coronavirus cases.
Yet so far, Mr. Trump has failed in his attempt to capitalize politically on his inflammatory remarks about the unrest in Kenosha, Wis., where last month demonstrators burned a number of buildings following the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Mr. Blake remains hospitalized after being shot seven times in the back during a confrontation captured on video and later broadcast online.
Nearly one in five Wisconsinites who said that riots in American cities were a bigger problem than racism in the criminal justice system planned to vote for Mr. Biden — even though it is Mr. Trump who is vowing a severe federal crackdown on violent outbursts.
Scott Lacko, a 55-year-old from the northern Wisconsin community of Eagle River, backed Mr. Trump in 2016 but will be voting for Mr. Biden this fall. The riots concern him deeply; he argued that Black people shot by police would have been spared had they followed instructions and said that “it’s sad to see these individuals continue to be placed on a pedestal.” But he said that Mr. Trump’s law-and-order push had not won him over.
The president, Mr. Lacko said, cannot be trusted to act in anyone’s interest but his own. He reflected a majority of Wisconsin voters in seeing Mr. Biden as a unifier of the country: 52 percent said they trusted him more to bring people together, compared with 39 percent for Mr. Trump.
“Trump certainly tries to take advantage of the situation and muddy the water,” he said. “I may not have agreed with some of the things Biden said, but at least he’s trying to bring people together and find some way through it.”
The poll found Mr. Biden leading Mr. Trump, 48 percent to 43 percent, among likely voters in Wisconsin. The five-point margin is about half of what Mr. Biden’s lead was when the Times last polled the state in late June. Mr. Trump has narrowed the gap between himself and the former vice president in parts of the country as the economy has improved after the initial coronavirus shutdowns in the spring.
For more than a decade, Wisconsin has been among the most polarized and evenly divided states in the country, and the fate of its political candidates has hung on turnout. When Democrats in its two major cities — Madison and Milwaukee — turned out in big numbers, party standard-bearers like Barack Obama and Gov. Tony Evers won statewide elections. But when Democratic turnout in Milwaukee or Madison has been soft, Republicans have prevailed: former Gov. Scott Walker carried the state in three elections between 2010 and 2014, and Mr. Trump won in 2016 by fewer than 23,000 votes out of nearly three million cast.
In Wisconsin’s cities, enthusiasm is high. The poll found 81 percent of voters in the cities said they were “almost certain” to vote, compared with 69 percent of suburban voters and 68 percent of rural voters. These city voters are also far more likely to favor Mr. Biden over Mr. Trump to maintain law and order. The intensity gap, if it is maintained through Election Day, is likely to benefit Mr. Biden.
In Trump-era elections that Democrats have won, there has been a surge of voter turnout in heavily Democratic Dane County, which includes Madison — the state capital and home of the flagship University of Wisconsin campus. In April’s state Supreme Court election, nearly as many votes were cast in Dane County as in Milwaukee County, even though Dane County has less than 60 percent of Milwaukee County’s population.
Justin Lang, a 38-year-old software developer in Verona, just outside Madison, said he had already ordered his absentee ballot to vote by mail for Mr. Biden.
“One hundred percent,” he said, when asked how certain he was that he would vote. “I don’t know that everyone is gung ho about Joe Biden in particular, but there’s a shared feeling across the board that Trumpism is a big problem. And that we need to get in there and vote to repudiate that.”
He added, “Within my social group, that’s going to be a big thing.”
The swing region of the state is the Fox Valley, a collection of small cities and rural areas stretching south from Green Bay. Andrew Fox, 38, an Iraq war veteran from Menasha, a community of 18,000 on the northern tip of Lake Winnebago, said he was not a fan of either major presidential candidate but was inclined to stick with Mr. Trump.
“I’m kind of stuck with Trump at this point,” Mr. Fox said, comparing his choice to “two bags of crap — cow and dog.”
In Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington Counties, the state’s longtime conservative suburban heartland that adjoins Milwaukee to the west and north, Republican margins have slipped during the Trump era from where they were when George W. Bush and Mitt Romney were on presidential ballots. The Times poll found that in those three counties, Mr. Trump was leading Mr. Biden, 54 percent to 37 percent — an erosion of support from 2012, when Mr. Romney won 67 percent of the three counties’ vote, and even from 2016, when Mr. Trump took 62 percent of the vote in the three counties.
Carl Bouxa, 54, an information technology consultant in a health care system, lives in Brookfield, a Waukesha County suburb, and said he would probably vote for Mr. Trump. “For me it’s more about the competency on the economy,” he said. Among Wisconsin voters, Mr. Bouxa was typical: 51 percent said they trusted Mr. Trump more on the economy, compared with 43 percent for Mr. Biden.
“Do you really trust him to be better at leading the country? And I really don’t,” Mr. Bouxa said of Mr. Biden. Referring to Mr. Trump, he said, “The other one might have his issues, but he seems at least to have more ability.”
The president retains a devoted following in rural Wisconsin, parts of which were longtime Democratic strongholds that swung hard to his campaign in 2016. Mr. Trump leads Mr. Biden, 51 percent to 37 percent, among rural voters.
“I am not on the fence,” said John Holland, 79, a retired manager for a plastics factory in Marshfield, a city of about 19,000 in central Wisconsin. He said he was enthusiastically casting his vote for Mr. Trump. “I think he’s doing a great job.”
Mr. Holland said that he had six lawn signs for Mr. Trump and that he had counted “only about two or three in our entire city” for Mr. Biden.
The recent unrest in Kenosha, Mr. Holland said, only made him and his wife feel more confident in their choice.
“I am 150 percent Trump right now,” said his wife, Theda Kasner, 82, a retired medical worker. “I have absolutely no use for the riots, the conflict that is going on. Tearing down the statues is absolutely destroying our history.”
Demographically, Wisconsin is akin to Ohio and Missouri — whiter, older and less educated than the national average, with a statewide electorate that has trended toward Republicans in the past decade even as major cities in those states have become more Democratic. Wisconsin retains a heavy concentration of Black voters, living mostly in Milwaukee and in the old Lake Michigan manufacturing hubs of Racine and Kenosha. Black respondents in the poll were nearly unanimous in their support of Mr. Biden.
Statewide, support for Black Lives Matter tracks with Mr. Biden’s voters — 49 percent have a favorable view of the movement, while 43 percent have an unfavorable opinion. The movement’s support is strongest among city dwellers (66 percent), people of color (72 percent) and young voters (85 percent of those 18 to 29 years old) — though more than half of independent voters and suburbanites also said they had a favorable view of Black Lives Matter.
Ashley Bailey, a 23-year-old Milwaukee woman who works for a social services agency, said the protests in Kenosha following Mr. Blake’s shooting had been a necessary rallying call for racial justice issues. Mr. Trump, she said, is incapable of understanding what it is like to be Black in America.
“I feel like he hasn’t taken it seriously,” Ms. Bailey said. “He doesn’t feel like it’s a real issue because he doesn’t have to deal with it or experience the prejudice that Black people face on a daily basis.”
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