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Wisconsin's Kenosha County exhibits why hoping for a last-minute swap may be harmful for Trump


U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters as he works with local law enforcement and business people while investigating the property damage while guiding Kenosha following recent protests against police brutality and racial injustice and the ensuing violence following the shooting of Jacob Blake Police officers visited in Kenosha, Wisconsin, September 1, 2020.

Leah Millis | Reuters

President Donald Trump's chances of defeating former Vice President Joe Biden on Election Day are getting smaller by the day, without a major shock that could bolster his standing with voters.

But such an October surprise could be less likely to move the needle in the coming days than in previous cycles, a potential damper to Trump's re-election shot.

Trump is absent from state and national polls, and impartial electoral models give him a 1:10 chance of winning the electoral college, a historically low number for an incumbent.

A look at Kenosha County in the southeast corner of the Wisconsin battlefield shows how difficult it is for Trump to reshape the race.

Trump became the first Republican to win in Wisconsin since 1984 – and the first to win Kenosha since 1972, which he did with just 255 votes. Trump won Wisconsin with a slim 23,000 votes.

The county, which lies between Milwaukee to the north and Chicago to the south, has been seen as a telling indicator of Trump's ability to use resentment against supposedly liberal elites to attract whites, suburban voters and workers who had not voted before or cast ballots for Democrats .

Over the course of the summer, Kenosha seemed right at the center of an event that could have swung the race.

Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old black man, was shot seven times in the back by Rusten Sheskey, a police officer, in front of Blake's three sons on August 23. In the protests that followed, two protesters were killed and one was injured in a shootout for which a 17-year-old was charged.

The Blake shoot had the markings of a game changer. It came the day before the Republican National Convention gave Trump a national audience to position himself as a candidate for law and order. Thereafter, both Trump and Biden descended on Kenosha.

Kellyanne Conway, a longtime Trump adviser who developed his strategy of winning women over in 2016, said the violence gave Trump an opening.

"The more chaos and anarchy, as well as vandalism and violence, the better it is for making very clear decisions about who is best in terms of public safety and law and order," she said after the shooting.

Two months later, however, the political significance of the shooting and subsequent protests was swallowed up. An average of the Wisconsin polls on the day of the shooting found that Biden had an advantage of just under 5 percentage points. He had the same leadership in the state Wednesday.

It's also not clear how much Trump's urge to present himself as a candidate for law and order cemented his favor among the county's suburbanites.

In an August poll before the shooting, 49% of registered voters living in Milwaukee's suburbs expressed a positive opinion about Trump, compared with 50% who had an unfavorable opinion, according to a poll by Marquette University Law School. In the week after the shooting, the numbers were almost unchanged from 46% favorable to 48% unfavorable.

"There are very few people who haven't made up their minds yet," said Katherine Cramer, author of the 2016 book The Politics of Resentment and a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Cramer said that given the country's polarization reflected in Wisconsin, nothing less than a new international military conflict was likely to change many minds. And even then, she said, it was hard to imagine that when the US went to war, people who didn't like Trump would suddenly gather around him.

"It's hard to imagine that anything would change the race at this point," she said.

The stickiness of voter preferences isn't bad for Trump. It could also dampen the effects of news events that would hurt the incumbent in a normal race.

For example, on Monday tech website The Verge published a comprehensive investigation that found a Foxconn LCD factory that Trump touted as the economic engine for southeastern Wisconsin will almost certainly never create the jobs he promised .

On Wednesday, Wisconsin reported a record number of deaths from the spreading Covid-19 pandemic. 74 people in Kenosha County, with fewer than 200,000 residents, died of the disease on Tuesday.

Cramer said partisans on both sides view these events in a way that suits their preferred candidate, which means Trump may not suffer a political blow like another president might.

Joe Zepecki, a Democratic strategist in the state, said the fact that the Blake shooting didn't win the race in Wisconsin is a bad sign for Trump, who needs the race to switch quickly. The first voting began across Wisconsin on Tuesday.

Worse for the President: Zepecki predicted the recent surge in Covid-19 in the state will prove more prominent.

"I think it's clear that Covid-19 was the most important shoe to fall," said Zepecki. "That doesn't mean that everyone who voted for him leaves him."

Zepecki believes the race will be close but that Biden will emerge victorious.

Trump, who was visiting southern Wisconsin for an event on Saturday, continued to downplay the virus.

"I wish you had a Republican governor because honestly you have to open your state. You have to open it," Trump said. He added that if he wins Wisconsin, "we win the whole ball game."

A Trump campaign spokeswoman said they will beat Biden in the state with an effective floor game.

"President Trump built the world's largest economy, created jobs and advocated law and order, while Biden oversaw the slowest economic recovery since the Great Depression, killed jobs in Wisconsin and was weak in the face of his supporters." violent unrest, "spokeswoman Samantha Zager said in a statement.

"The massive ground game of the Trump campaign ensures that we will have President Trump's supporters by election day and that Biden simply cannot compete with a non-existent field program," Zager said.

The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

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