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In Wisconsin, Biden tries to hold on to White voters without degrees

1 week ago 33

MONROE, Wis. — Diane Solberger is worried that President Biden is not capable physically or mentally of serving another term — but despite her misgivings she is prepared to vote for him to keep former president Donald Trump from returning to the White House.

“He seems a little feeble,” Solberger said of Biden. “But at this point I’ll take that.”

Solberger, a 66-year-old retiree who lives in this small Wisconsin city, is part of a crucial demographic for Biden’s reelection campaign: White voters without bachelor’s degrees.

These voters have been moving toward Republicans for decades, and they make up the core of Trump’s support. He won them by 30 points nationally in 2020, according to an average of three post-election estimates.

Biden still trails Trump by big margins with these voters, but he seems to be holding onto more of them in Wisconsin than in other swing states. He lags behind Trump by 13 points among White voters without degrees in Wisconsin, versus 27 points in Michigan and 21 points in Pennsylvania, according to Washington Post averages of recent polls.

Biden’s reelection odds increasingly hinge on winning all three of those states as he struggles with Black and Hispanic voters frustrated with his handling of the economy. Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin each have fewer racial minorities and higher shares of White voters without degrees than other swing states.

That’s especially true in Wisconsin, where those White voters make up 58 percent of registered voters — a higher share than any other battleground state. Biden lost those voters by 14 points when he won Wisconsin in 2020, according to an average of post-election estimates.

“In order to win, Democrats have to overperform — by a lot — with White working-class voters in the state, because most voters in Wisconsin are White working-class voters,” Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler said. “No one who’s active in politics forgets that for a second.”

The race between Biden and Trump is incredibly close, with a small number of swing voters in six battleground states — including Wisconsin — expected to decide the election.

Wisconsin Democrats attribute part of Biden’s relative strength with White voters without degrees to a rural progressive tradition that has faded but not disappeared — and part of it to tenacious organizing, including in rural areas where many of those voters live.

Biden lost fewer White non-college voters in Wis. than expected in 2020.

Support for Biden was generally higher in Wisconsin counties with high shares of White voters without bachelor's degrees than in similar counties elsewhere.

Wisconsin counties

Biden ran 19 percent stronger than expected in Lafayette County.

Higher

BIDEN VOTE SHARE in 2020

Green County

50%

Anticipated outcome given education levels

Other U.S. counties

Lower

Fewer without

college degree

50%

More without

college degree

white ADULTS without college degree

(share of county pop.)

Sources: Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections,

Census 2020 educational attainment for adults.

Biden lost fewer White non-college voters in Wis. than expected in 2020.

Support for Biden was generally higher in Wisconsin counties with high shares of White voters without bachelor's degrees than in similar counties elsewhere.

Wisconsin counties

Higher

Green County

BIDEN VOTE SHARE in 2020

Biden ran 19 percent stronger than expected in Lafayette County.

50%

Anticipated outcome given education levels

Other U.S. counties

Lower

50%

Fewer without

college degree

More without

college degree

white ADULTS without college degree

(share of county pop.)

Sources: Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, Census 2020

educational attainment for adults.

Biden lost fewer White non-college voters in Wis. than expected in 2020.

Support for Biden was generally higher in Wisconsin counties with high shares of White voters without bachelor's degrees than in similar counties elsewhere.

Wisconsin counties

Higher

Green County

Biden ran 19 percent stronger than expected in Lafayette County.

50%

Other U.S. counties

Lower

Anticipated outcome given education levels

50%

Fewer without

college degree

More without

college degree

white ADULTS without college degree

(share of county pop.)

Sources: Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, Census 2020 educational attainment for adults.

Biden’s campaign is investing in an unprecedented field operation in Wisconsin, with 47 coordinated campaign offices across the state — more offices than Biden has in any other battleground state and far more than Republicans have in Wisconsin — staffed by more than 100 full-time campaign workers.

“Right now, the issues are on the conservative side but the organization is on the side of the left,” said Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s former Republican governor. “The Trump campaign, the state and national Republicans need to step up and find a way to not just open up more offices, but particularly get more boots on the ground to knock on more doors and make more calls.”

Trump’s campaign referred questions to Anna Kelly, a Republican National Committee spokeswoman, who said in a statement that “momentum is on the side of President Trump” in Wisconsin due to inflation, crime and the struggles of family farms.

Republicans opened a new field office in Waukesha last month, and Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Brian Schimming said the party is staffing up and opening more offices.

Schimming described Biden’s early spending on TV ads — the Biden campaign, the Democratic National Committee and an allied super PAC have spent more than $5.2 million running TV ads in Wisconsin so far this year, according to AdImpact — as a waste of money. And he argued Democrats’ investment in field organizing in Wisconsin did not prevent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson from narrowly winning reelection in 2022.

“The Democrats, they can put an office on every street corner if they want, but that hasn’t really helped them very much,” Schimming said. “We are going to have a ground effort that is going to be what we need to get the job done.”

An active Democratic presence

Democrats have managed to keep winning in some places where White people without bachelor’s degrees predominate — including much of New England, pockets of Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin. Indeed, Wisconsin is home to five of the 10 counties nationwide that Biden carried in 2020 with the highest shares of those residents.

At the top of the list is Green County, Wis., a patchwork of small towns and dairy farms south of Madison that prides itself on its Swiss heritage and its cheesemaking. Monroe, the county seat, is a 45-mile drive from Madison on mostly two-lane roads, but the state capital’s liberal influence bleeds over the county line.

It’s not hard to find White voters without college degrees in Green County who vote Democratic.

Green County Democratic chairwoman Sandy Rindy has a technical degree but not a bachelor’s degree. Neither does her husband, Rod Rindy. Stefani Butts, the county’s Democratic vice chair, studied at Purdue University but dropped out after she ran out of financial aid.

Butts, 32, doesn’t blame anyone 25 and under in the county for not going to college.

“It’s not worth the debt,” she said.

But workers in Green County don’t necessarily need bachelor’s degrees to secure good jobs.

The county is richer than Wisconsin as a whole, with a household median income of about $76,000 versus about $72,000 for the state. The courthouse square in Monroe is lined with local businesses, without the empty storefronts that mar many other small towns. The Madison area, which includes Green County, has the lowest unemployment rate in Wisconsin.

Green County is not overwhelmingly liberal — “Democrats here traditionally kept quiet so people didn’t harass them,” Butts said — but there is an active Democratic presence.

The Biden campaign opened a tiny office in Monroe in April, and a few days later more than a dozen Biden campaign signs could be spotted in front of houses around town. Wikler, the state Democratic chairman, is a yard-sign evangelist.

“If you know whose yard it is that the sign is adorning, then it actually carries the weight of a community leader’s endorsement, which can make a genuine difference in creating a kind of social permission to back a Democrat in a place that is voting largely Republican,” he said.

Biden’s campaign is relying on an existing base of volunteers who know how to reach voters who might be willing to back him. Local Democrats send out 1,000 to 1,400 handwritten postcards each election to reach voters in rural areas whose doors are hard to knock on, Sandy Rindy said.

Barb Woodriff, a retired paralegal, has volunteered on every Democratic presidential campaign since 1972. Though she is 78, she showed up earlier this year to shovel snow outside Biden’s office in Monroe. Ron Spielman, a Republican who has known her for decades, credited her efforts with helping to keep the county Democratic.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Woodriff said. “My travel plans for this summer are virtually nil because reelecting Joe Biden and [Sen.] Tammy Baldwin is so crucial for our democracy.”

Democrats’ eroding advantage

Democrats are still winning Green County, but Republicans have been gaining ground — and the party is working to flip it this year despite Trump’s lean ground operation.

President Barack Obama carried the county by 17 points in 2012 when he won reelection, but Clinton barely won it when she lost Wisconsin to Trump. Biden ran a little stronger there in 2020, defeating Trump there by fewer than 700 votes.

“Most of our folks here are what I call Roosevelt and Kennedy Democrats,” said Green County Republican chairman John Fandrich. “Their grandparents voted for Roosevelt. Their parents voted for Kennedy. And they follow that tradition — until lately.”

Wisconsin Republicans have maintained a permanent office in Monroe since 2022. Fandrich said he’s working to win over voters dissatisfied with the Biden economy by “focusing on the message of the Republican Party, not so much the messenger.”

Kent Myhre is one of those voters.

Myhre, 34, a computer-aided design drafter, voted twice for Obama and, after sitting out the 2016 presidential election, he backed Biden in 2020. But he can’t bring himself to vote for Biden again.

“I didn’t like the division with Trump in the country, but also the economy was pretty well off,” Myhre said one evening in Monroe as his young son played nearby. “My grocery bills were low. My gas was low. The cost of living was low.”

Some Monroe voters without bachelor’s degrees criticized Biden’s efforts to forgive student loan debt, which have erased $167 billion in debt since the Supreme Court blocked his original plan to forgive about $400 billion.

But Myhre, who has an associate’s degree, said he had about $20,000 in student loan debt and was disappointed Biden had not forgiven it. “I went for Biden because of the whole student loan forgiveness and that never happened,” he said.

“It would’ve been nice to have mine wiped out,” he added.

Biden’s strategy: Out-organize Trump

Biden’s strategy for winning Wisconsin is built around state Democrats’ year-round, volunteer-run door-knocking operation. Most of Biden’s campaign offices are in counties Trump won in 2020 but where Biden overperformed given the underlying demographics.

Biden lost rural Lafayette County, where he has an office in tiny Darlington, by 14 points in 2020. But he ran 19 percent stronger there than one would expect based on the share of its population that is White and does not have a bachelor’s degree, according to a Washington Post analysis.

“When you’ve got a Democratic Party office in a small town, it’s much easier to get people engaged,” said Tanya Bjork, a senior adviser to Biden’s campaign in Wisconsin who has worked on the past four presidential campaigns there. “And getting more people engaged means more doors and more phone calls and more conversations.”

Biden has campaigned in only one county Trump won in Wisconsin, and some Democrats grouse that they would like to see more of him in rural areas.

“Tammy Baldwin wins, but she works the state,” said John Waelti, a retired economist who writes a column for the Monroe Times. “She always has hard hats and farmers in her photos. When Biden and [Vice President] Harris come, it’s Milwaukee and Madison.”

Most of Biden’s 11 trips to Wisconsin since taking office have been to Milwaukee or Madison, although he’s traveled twice to Superior, a city of about 26,000 in northern Wisconsin where the infrastructure law he signed is funding the rebuilding of the John A. Blatnik Bridge.

Baldwin said she has encouraged Biden to campaign across the state.

“It’ll be up to their campaign to bring [accomplishments like the infrastructure law] from the macro level of visionary policy to benefit generations to come to the micro level,” she said. “What did it do in Green County?”

Dan Keating, Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed reporting.

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