Trump’s Visiting Wisconsin, But Biden Isn’t. Does it Matter?

Democrats have largely changed their approach to campaigning due to the pandemic while Republicans have been touring the state with and without masks. Which approach will voters prefer in November?

Wisconsin is one of the few true two-party states in the country, making its role as a battleground state in the general election undeniableBut considering the importance of the state’s 10 electoral votes, we’ve only seen visits from half of the candidates. 

So how much does it really matter to voters that presumptive Democratic presidential and vice-presidential candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris probably won’t visit Wisconsin before Election Day? And how much does it matter that in their absence during the week of Milwaukee’s Democratic National Convention, both of their Republican opponents, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, will be making appearances in the state? 

This isn’t the first time questions about the importance of candidate visits has been brought to attention. After the 2016 election, when Hillary Clinton became the first Democratic presidential candidate to lose Wisconsin since 1984, many political theorizers were quick to accuse her of ignoring the state. 

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Clinton notably spent substantially less money than Trump in Wisconsin in 2016, and she never visited. Clinton was the first major party presidential nominee to not visit Wisconsin since Nixon in 1972

In her 2017 book, What Happened, Clinton describes Wisconsin turning red as one of the biggest surprises of the campaign. She said polls had shown her “comfortably ahead” all the way up to Election Day, and no one expected the state to flip. 

“If our data (or anyone else’s) had shown we were in danger, of course we would have invested even more,” she wrote in the book. “I would have torn up my schedule, which was designed based on the best information we had, and camped out there.”

And yet, neither Biden nor Harris have camped out or even visited Wisconsin since Harris’ 2018 backing of Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

By comparison, Trump has already visited Wisconsin twice this year, and at least twice in 2019. Pence separately visited at least twice last year too.

The president also plans to visit this Monday, a highly controversial move right at the start of the virtual DNC. Pence is visiting two days later, on the third day of the convention, which just so happens to be the same day Harris is set to speak at the DNC.

Of course, the pandemic-plagued 2020 is a much different year than 2016. So it’s not quite as clear cut as saying Biden and Harris not visiting is a sign Democrats are making the same mistakes as they did in 2016. 

As far as the polls are concerned, Biden is leading in Wisconsin, according to the Marquette Law Poll released last week – though his margin is notably narrower than Clinton’s was over Trump in 2016. Clinton, however, was also experiencing a post-convention bounce at this point in her campaign.

Charles Franklin, Marquette University professor and director of the Marquette Law School Poll, notes that, unlike in 2016, both the Biden and Trump campaigns are spending heavily on advertising in the state. He also says the effects of candidate visits are not uniform and vary depending on candidate, party, election year and state competitiveness, according to a study by Christopher H. Devine from the University of Dayton. 

The Marquette Law Poll has not (yet) asked voters about the importance of candidate visits. 

However, Marquette political science professor Amber Wichowsky says there is some evidence that having a really robust field operation or hosting a national convention can boost turnout – something that the Democratic Party is aiming to do in cities like Milwaukee where voter turnout declined between 2012 and 2016

Candidate visits and other campaign events can lead to what Wichowsky calls a “flurry of activity” – aka media coverage, voter registration and other base-mobilizing action – that often gives both Republicans and Democrats a bounce in the polls after their conventions.

Most notably, conventions provide an enthusiasm advantage. 

For Democrats, Wichowsky says, that mobilization for the midterm election in 2018 could indicate that this enthusiasm advantage isn’t altogether necessary. And despite criticisms that Biden isn’t necessarily a base-exciting candidate, particularly with the more progressive Democrats, voters are still enthused by wanting to get Trump out of office.

According to the Marquette poll, both candidates are viewed unfavorably by the majority of registered voters. In Wisconsin, Trump was viewed favorably by 42% and unfavorably by 55%, while Biden was viewed favorably by 43% and unfavorably by 48%.

For Republicans, Wichowsky said Trump could be lacking the advantage he had in 2016, indicating that he may need these in-person events to bolster enthusiasm for his campaign.

“We can all think about those images of his [2016] rallies and his speeches and just the ways in which that excited the base,” she said. “If I’m saying that part of these candidate visits are about generating enthusiasm and excitement amongst the base, if he’s fearing lagging and not having [the support] he did in 2016, it could indicate the need to come back to the state.”

There’s also a partisan difference in willingness to face coronavirus concerns, Wichoswky said. Democrats are more worried about the effects of the coronavirus – they’re more likely to vote by mail, more likely to wear a mask. So a hypothetical Biden campaign event, Wichowsky says, could run counter to this.

“Part of this is the understanding amongst Democrats is that we’re in a very different circumstance, and that the number of Democrats who would be willing to come to that sort of campaign event [is] fewer vis-a-vis previous elections.” she said. “Whereas Trump, especially amongst his supporters, there’s less of that sort of hesitancy about coming to events.”

This is mirrored in the candidates themselves. 

Trump and Pence are more willing to travel and speak, with or without masks, while Biden has not been campaigning in that way,” Franklin said. 

The party conventions are running back-to-back this year, and it will be critical to note how voters respond. Wichowsky is certain, however, there will be more mobilization than 2016.

“There’s a lot of effort and energy to mobilize voters on both sides, from both campaigns. Wisconsin will receive a lot of that attention,” she said. “So right now in August 2020, it feels like despite the convention not happening [in-person], and a pandemic, there does seem to be a bit more energy compared to where we were in 2016.”

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