In Wisconsin, Democrat and Republican Voters Are Frustrated

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WAUKESHA, Wis. — Chatting with attendees of a Donald Trump rally in 2022, you expect certain go-to themes: the Bidens are corrupt and should go to jail like the Clintons, the Deep State drummed up countless hoaxes to undermine Trump, and the current administration is illegitimate. Like Old Faithful, the conservative geyser of grievance doesn’t disappoint.

Still, that doesn’t mean Democrats can ignore this gush, or even assume some degree of it is not sloshing onto their turf. Amid a string of good news for the administration and his party, Joe Biden’s polling still remains in the-President’s-party-is-about-to-get-its-butt-kicked territory. This seems to be a confusing political paradox, but it becomes clearer when you examine the correlation between what Trump-loving Wisconsinites are saying and the opinions of their Democratic counterparts about the political climate.

A few hours earlier in the month I had the opportunity to talk about the current state of America with MAGA voters from Waukesha, which is one of America’s most political and prodded counties. Waukesha County is among the WOW counties that are close to Milwaukee. They’re a proxy of the larger Midwest, so pollsters focus-group them to the highest heaven. Other counties are Washington and Ozaukee. Wow; get it? Polisci nerds have never met a shorthand that isn’t deployed.)

Waukesha is whiter and more educated than the typical counties in the battleground state, but still one where voters in cities outnumber those on farms and where Democrats are cutting into Republicans’ dominance. This tension and nuance was evident at the Trump event.

“President Biden doesn’t seem to be worried about America. We rely on other countries for everything,” says Eric Pfeiffer, a 47-year-old union ironworker from Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. His two-hour commute is costing him at the pump, his groceries have almost doubled, and the infrastructure law’s dollars haven’t yet had as big an impact in central Wisconsin as he had hoped. Then, there’s the cultural rub that may be the most bittersweet of them all: “We won’t have chocolate for Halloween because of the supply chain.” (Fact-check: certainly possible.)

For a moment, turn the Trump rhetoric off and listen to the legitimate concerns about economic conditions. These were the same ones that were expressed in Milwaukee a few days later at a meet-and greet for Mandela Barnes (Democratic nominee for Senate). They’re as loud as they are legitimate.

It is important to be clear that a few dozen conversations held outside of two partisan events do not make a focus group valid and instructive. But the anecdotal exercise gleaned from these rote—and typically Midwest Nice if not genuinely friendly—exchanges does offer a window into the kind of comments popping up all over the place in a state that is crucial to deciding which party will control the Senate next year.

And that, precisely, is why the state of the midterms is in flux—and why Republicans remain hopeful that even some of their most problematic candidates can still survive. Some measures may indicate that the economy is in good shape, like the unemployment rate which Barack Obama and George W. Bush would be proud of at their lowest points. Biden boasts other accomplishments, such as unexpected legislative wins and a more serious approach to government that has made Twitter less of a tool for foreign policy innovation. But voters aren’t giving him credit for any of this—so much so that 68% of Americans told CNN’s latest poll that the President isn’t focused on the country’s biggest problems, the largest gap since the question was first asked in that poll in 1993.

Thumb through the detailed CNN polling and it’s clear voters remain deeply worried about the direction of this country, a level of anxiety that in previous administrations spelled political purgatory.

Take a look at the Presidents that suffered a defeat in their first encounter with voters. (George W. Bush’s 2002 midterms in the wake of 9/11 cannot be credibly lumped here.) George H.W. Bush witnessed voters tell CNN pollsters that around this time in 1990, 40% believed the country was heading in the wrong direction. Republicans lost 8 House seats, one Senate seat. Four years later, 48% of voters shared that view and Bill Clinton’s Democrats shed 54 House seats and eight Senate seats. Barack Obama’s 73% dismal score on that same question led to the drop of 63 House members as well six Senators. Trump was able to reduce this figure by 40% while still losing 41 House Republicans and picking up two Senators.

Consider this: Biden’s situation is worse than that of any other, 79% of Americans have a negative opinion of the status-quo.

Again, facts don’t have to match perceptions. Democrats like to treat Trumpists’ comments as representing a fringe part of the country. It’s tempting to side with those consultants, but the numbers are starting to tell a different story, one that could explain why folks like ICU technician Dawn Woods has had it with such rationalizations. As she was about to leave the historic Black Milwaukee church, Barnes (the Senate candidate) had been holding his meet and greet. She initially used a mocking tone in discussing the political environment. “Everything’s Biden’s fault. The reason gas is so high is Biden’s fault. Please. How is this his fault?” she says before focusing her criticism on a different target. “Biden has got to convince people they’re wrong. If it doesn’t, it stays. Rumors and lies are hard to kill.”

This belief that no side is right may continue long after Biden’s departure. Consider the thinking of Dick Baird, a retiree from Oconomowoc, Wis., who stood in line at a food truck at Trump’s rally back in Waukesha. “Joe Biden has gotten a free ride the whole time,” he says, sticking to the familiar refrain. “The corruption in Washington is out of control. They’re all compromised. They’re all being blackmailed.”

But then, much like Woods, he pauses and considers whether he’s giving his side of the political aisle too much of a free pass. He adds, “The Republican candidates are just as corrupt as the Democrats.”

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