Deep divisions make US election bellwether hard to read

Elodie CUZIN
·4 min read

With her little dog Pepperoni trailing at her heels, Sarah Lloyd pushes the fodder close to the muzzles of the dairy cows that watch her as she comes and goes.

Lloyd, a University of Wisconsin researcher who is also vice president of a local farmers' union, calls herself a bit of an "outlier" in her rural part of the Midwestern US state.

"I will not vote for Donald Trump and I did not vote for Donald Trump in 2016," the fit 48-year-old told AFP.

Lloyd's family farm is nestled in a hollow in the green hills of Wisconsin Dells, which straddles four counties -- Juneau, Columbia, Sauk and Adams.

Four years ago, Juneau county saw a major political turnaround -- after twice voting for Barack Obama, it backed the Republican billionaire businessman over Hillary Clinton.

The area, which is located about an hour's drive north of the state capital Madison, could act as a bellwether for the November 3 election, in which Trump will battle Democrat Joe Biden.

After all, Juneau county has backed every winning presidential candidate since 1964.

But with less than three months to go until Election Day, opinions here vary wildly, making it difficult to predict which way the area will go.

- People 'hurting' in rural America -

While rural parts of Wisconsin "have moved towards the Republican Party and towards Trump, so have small cities or large towns within them that are much less Republican than the countryside is," said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll. 

"So there is some division developing around the state," which Trump won by a narrow margin in 2016, he said. 

For Lloyd, Trump "capitalized on the fact that people in the rural areas are really hurting."

"I mean, we're hurting economically. And we were hurting long before Trump got into office," added Lloyd, a delegate to the Democratic National Convention who voted for Bernie Sanders on Tuesday night, not Biden.

"The Democrats have not figured it out that they need to make us an offer that is going to help our communities and help our businesses," she said, deploring the fact that Clinton did not even visit Wisconsin.

The trade war with China has hit local soybean producers, but Lloyd said she appreciated the billions of dollars in emergency funding that the Trump administration freed up for farmers.  

"We're going bankrupt here if we don't have those payments," she said, noting that the payments did not mitigate her disdain for the incumbent.

"I'm not going to vote for a misogynist, racist fascist," she said.

- Trump '100 percent' -

Tony Kurtz, a Republican member of the state assembly, says voters in the area "really vote for the person -- not necessarily the party."

His constituency covers not only Juneau but also part of Sauk county, which Trump carried by just 109 votes out of 30,000. 

On a hot summer day, Kurtz and his Democratic opponent Mark Waldon have joined forces for a giant charity barbecue -- more than 1,000 chickens are being distributed drive-in style because of coronavirus-related safety measures. 

It is a rare example of bipartisan cooperation in an America riven by political fissures.

Even if he'd like to see the president tweet less, Kurtz said he will still vote for the former reality television star, arguing that he is best placed to lead the economy out of crisis. 

Alexander Blake Weiland, a 25-year-old military veteran who now organizes music festivals, said he opted not to vote in 2016. 

"It felt like a rock and a hard place," he said in the Juneau county seat of Mauston. 

This time, though, he is absolutely sure. 

"I will vote and I feel as if I will vote Donald Trump 100 percent, unless something dramatic happens, because he has a record now," said Weiland, who voted for Obama in 2012.

Before the pandemic swept the country, "the economy was absolutely fantastic. The unemployment rate was down, down, down. He's made strides," he said. 

- 'Worse than imagined' -

Kari Walker, who co-owns a bar with her husband, takes the exact opposite view. 

"I didn't feel that he had the experience that we needed," said the 50-year-old Walker. 

"I also was appalled by his language. And I was appalled by his, well, his treatment of women of course."

Almost four years on, Trump's handling of the pandemic that has cost more than 170,000 American lives is "abysmal," she said. 

"It is embarrassing. It's shameful."

Standing at her bar, Walker said she will vote for the Democratic ticket in November, even though she is not wildly enthusiastic about Biden. 

"But I feel that the stakes are too high. I feel that Donald Trump has been a worse president than I could have imagined," she said.

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