A Trip to Wisconsin Shows How Frustrated Both Republicans and Democrats Are With Washington

3 months ago 4619

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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. What seems like a fuzzy political paradox clears up some when you look for the overlap between what frustrated Trump-loving Wisconsinites and their Democratic counterparts are saying about the political environment.

On a Friday earlier this month, I spent a couple of hours talking about the state of the country with MAGA voters in Waukesha County, one of the most politically poked and prodded counties in America. Waukesha is one of the three WOW counties near Milwaukee that pollsters and pundits study and focus-group to high heaven because, to some, they are a proxy for the broader Midwest. (The others are Ozaukee and Washington counties. 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. That tension and nuance were in plain view around 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.)

Put the outlandish Trump rhetoric on mute for a minute and you hear valid concerns about the economy, the kind that were not drastically different from those expressed a few days later in nearby Milwaukee at a meet-and-greet for the Democratic nominee for Senate, Mandela Barnes. They’re as loud as they are legitimate.

To be clear: a couple of dozen conversations outside two partisan events does not constitute a valid or instructive focus group. 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. The economy may be in strong shape by some measures, such as an unemployment rate both George W. Bush and Barack Obama would have killed-for at their nadirs. And Biden has other things to brag about, including some big and unexpected legislative wins, and a sober approach to governing that means Twitter is no longer a source of foreign policy improv. 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.

Consider the three most recent Presidents who faced a drubbing in their first at-bat with voters. (George W. Bush’s 2002 midterms in the wake of 9/11 cannot be credibly lumped here.) The elder George H.W. Bush saw voters telling CNN pollsters at roughly this point in 1990 that 40% of them thought the country was going in the wrong direction. Republicans lost eight House seats and a 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 posted a dismal 73% number on the same question and dropped 63 House members and six Senators. Trump narrowed this figure to 40%, but still lost 41 fellow Republicans in the House while picking up two Senators.

Now consider this: Biden is in worse shape than any of them were, with 79% of Americans having a negative view 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. She was leaving the historically Black church in Milwaukee where Barnes, the Senate candidate, had held his meet-and-greet, and initially took a mocking tone when 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. Otherwise, it sticks. Rumors and lies are hard to kill.”

That sense that neither side can shoot straight may be one that persists well after Biden leaves office. 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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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.

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