Wisconsin voters see economy through political lens in polarized era
APPLETON — Nothing can shake Scott Rice’s faith that President Donald Trump will save the U.S. economy — not seeing businesses close or friends furloughed, not even his own hellish bout with COVID-19.
He was once a virus skeptic. But then the disease seeped into the paper mill where he works, and he was stricken, suddenly losing his appetite. He lay in bed, feverish, drenched in sweat. His body seemed at war with itself.
After 16 days at home, Rice told his co-workers that the disease was scary and real. But Trump held onto his vote for one reason: The stock market was climbing.
“The 401(k)s, just the economy,” Rice said. “He got jobs going. Just accumulated a lot of jobs, being a businessman.”
Rice’s belief represents the foundation of Trump’s hopes — that Americans believe the economy is strong enough to deliver him a second term.
But in Appleton, a city of 75,000 people along the Fox River, the health of the economy isn’t judged on jobs numbers, personal bank accounts or union contracts. Instead, it’s viewed through partisan lenses — filtered through the facts voters want to see and hear, and those they don’t.
By almost any measure, Trump’s promises of an economic revival in places like Appleton have gone unfulfilled. The area has lost about 8,000 jobs since he got elected.
While supporters like Rice are immovable, others have had enough. President Barack Obama won here in 2012, but voters flipped to Trump four years later, and Trump cannot afford much erosion in a state that he won by only 22,000 votes out of more than 2.8 million.
Biden holds a slight lead over Trump in the latest Marquette Law School poll of Wisconsin voters. Trump’s disapproval rating has risen to 54% from 49% at the start the year. But 52% of Wisconsin voters applaud Trump on the economy, while 56% dislike his handling of the pandemic.
Even Rice concedes that the economy is not just an argument for Trump — it’s also an argument against him. His 20-year-old daughter, Cassidy, tells him so. She is studying public health at George Washington University and will cast her first presidential vote for Biden.
“The fact that there was a pandemic and the fact that it had those consequences on the economy should be an eye opener, like, hey, maybe we’re not doing this correctly,” she said.
What the mind believes
Trump won the presidency by wringing tens of thousands of votes out of small towns and medium-size cities across Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
He did it in places like Appleton’s Outagamie County. A city of stone and brick, Appleton hugs the Fox River, its currents powering the smoke-stacked paper mills that built fortunes. Now condos, cafes, offices and a jogging trail line the riverbank.
The trail ends downtown at Houdini Plaza, a monument to the city’s most famous offspring, illusionist Harry Houdini. His words are inscribed on the monument where his childhood home once stood: “What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.”
There may be no better explanation of American politics in this confounding moment.
Trump voters listen to his cheerleading for the economy and believe the businessman president has worked his magic. Biden’s backers see an illusion — an economy that was recovering under Obama, but now, with the pandemic, is trying to crawl back to health, with no real plan from Trump.
People cannot even agree on the terms of the economic debate.
“What we’ve done with politics is gotten into a tribal war that looks only at elections when we should be looking at policies and results,” said John Burke, CEO and chairman of Wisconsin-based Trek Bicycles, one of the state’s most prominent business leaders.
Unemployment down before virus
After 2016, local Democrats wasted no time mourning. Lee Snodgrass became chairwoman of the local party and began a blitz of door-knocking to build up volunteers and voters, a task that led her into areas that were firmly for Trump.
As a candidate now for the state legislature, Snodgrass finds Republicans still defending Trump after she recited facts about the economy and the pandemic: several millions jobs lost, a rising body count.
Those Republican voters found Trump’s demeanor crude. But the unemployment rate was a strong 3.5% before the pandemic. Trump had updated and replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement. They give Trump credit, although he inherited a healthy 4.7% unemployment rate and the trade deficit with Mexico on goods had jumped to $101 billion last year — higher than in any year under Obama.
At the Midwest Paper Group, where Scott Rice works, there is a story of recovery, but one where credit lay with the union and the Outagamie County executive, not with Trump.
More than 600 workers were handed pink slips in anticipation of the mill being shuttered, in an area where nearly one in five jobs are still in factories.
“Most were resigned to fate,” said Tom Nelson, the county executive and a Democrat. “The paper industry was deemed old and outdated, uncompetitive because of imports, unfair trade deals, electronic substitution.”
The workers, their union representation and Nelson lobbied the bankruptcy court and struck a deal. Instead, the mill added new machines to make materials for cardboard, capitalizing on the growing number of people shopping online at Amazon. For 12 hours a day, Rice mans the control room in a red face mask that says “USA.”
Trek’s three U.S. warehouses were emptied of bikes by August because of a rush of pandemic buying, yet Burke, its CEO — whose sister, former Madison School Board member Mary Burke ran for governor in 2014 as a Democrat — was agonizing about the fate of the broader economy.
Burke, 58, pedals 110 miles on his standard Saturday ride, long enough for the nation’s problems to turn over in his mind. He decided to write a book in 2016 and updated it this year, “Presidential Playbook 2020: 16 Nonpartisan Solutions to Save America.”
As Burke sees it, Trump has governed with a dangerous set of blinds. There are the hurricanes and wildfires unleashed by climate change. Not enough money invested in children. And Trump initially downplayed the virus’ threat.
In Appleton, nearly 40% of the leisure and hospitality jobs have been lost. Restaurants have been closed, hotels vacant. Downtown, Mondo! wine bar is getting by with retail sales and outdoor seating, until the weather changes.
The bar’s owner, David Oliver, 59, said American businesses desperately need another round of aid and Oliver blames the president.
“They’re supposed to be pro-business,” Oliver said. “But so much of the Republican Party has reverted to this magical thinking that Trump has that the economy is fine and the virus is going away.”
What the pandemic has shattered is consumer confidence, said Marvin Murphy, the 80-year-old owner of Fox Cities magazine. He estimates he has spoken with every business within 70 miles of Appleton.
“The COVID has put so much pessimism into the economy — that’s the big killer,” he said.
Murphy sipped a fresh cup of coffee in his backyard overlooking the Wolf River and lamented that so many people only process the world based on what they see and hear on TV.
“Reality is not the most important thing,” Murphy said. “The perceived reality is what’s important.”
“What we’ve done with politics is gotten into a tribal war that looks only at elections when we should be looking at policies and results.” John Burke, CEO and chairman of Wisconsin-based Trek Bicycles