Joe Biden really didn’t seem to want to visit Wisconsin. Just two weeks ago, his campaign decided that it was simply too dangerous to accept the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in Milwaukee. If it were up to Biden, he wouldn’t have visited Kenosha and might not have even left his basement.
He went because he felt that he had to.
Two days after President Trump made a mostly well-received stop in which he met with local law-enforcement officers and business owners affected by this month’s riots, the Biden campaign was left with no choice. He needed to visit or risk conceding the law-and-order issue in what may well be this November’s most crucial battleground state.
Wisconsin is especially precarious for Biden because of the speed with which support for this summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations has evaporated. In late June, the Marquette University Law School Poll — which is considered the gold standard of polling in Wisconsin — showed that 61 percent of the state’s residents supported the protests, while just 36 percent disapproved. In August’s Marquette poll, which was released two weeks before protests devolved into riots in Kenosha, support for mass demonstrations dipped 13 points, with 48 percent approval and 48 percent disapproval. 48 percent of respondents said that the protests were mostly peaceful, but 41 percent said they were mostly violent (that question was not asked in June).
This dramatically more skeptical view of the issue has coincided with a tightening of the race in Wisconsin, as Biden’s lead shrunk from eight points in June to six before the Kenosha riots made policing perhaps the central issue in Wisconsin. In the six public polls of Wisconsin voters released in June and included in the RealClearPolitics polling average, Biden held an average lead of 6.5 percent. In the current RealClearPolitics average, which only includes one poll released after the riots, Biden’s lead is just 4.0 percent. What should terrify Biden is that Hillary Clinton’s average lead over Trump in Wisconsin in August of 2016 was 7.7 percent. She had a 15-point lead among likely voters in that month’s Marquette Poll.
Two days after that poll was released, the Sherman Park neighborhood of Milwaukee burned after a police officer shot and killed an African-American man who pulled a gun on him. Coverage of the rioting dominated national headlines for only a few days, but in Wisconsin the violence clearly had a lasting impact. The following month’s Marquette Poll showed Clinton leading Trump, 44 percent to 42 percent. Two months later, Trump won Wisconsin by less than a percentage point, which helped him clinch the presidency. While the Sherman Park riot was likely not the main reason, it clearly played a role, as voters in rural and suburban areas of the state voted for Trump in massive numbers. Statewide elections in Wisconsin always turn on whether those Republican-leaning areas will overcome massive Democratic advantages in Milwaukee and the capital city of Madison. Voters outside of those two cities view them with a healthy amount of distrust and almost as a separate entity. Perhaps nowhere in America is the urban-rural divide as pronounced as it is in Wisconsin, and this makes the Kenosha riots especially troubling for Biden.
In 2016, outstate voters might have viewed rioting in Milwaukee as a “Milwaukee problem” that would never really affect them directly. Four years later, the Kenosha riots proved them wrong. “There’s no doubt it’s playing into Trump’s hands,” longtime Madison mayor Paul Soglin, a Democrat, told Politico last week. “There’s a significant number of undecided voters who are not ideological, and they can move very easily from Republican to the Democratic column and back again. They are, in effect, the people who decide elections.”
Priscella Gazda is one of them. The Kenosha native only voted once in her life — for Barack Obama in 2008. “I’m not the one who would ever vote,” she told The New York Times, adding that after the rioting in her hometown, she is “going to vote for Trump. He seems to be more about the American people and what we need.” Her sentiment is likely far more widespread than the Biden campaign wants to admit. It is the real reason that Biden was forced to visit Kenosha on Thursday. His campaign is terrified of making the same mistakes in Wisconsin that Clinton did four years ago.
So concerned was the Democratic National Committee about making the state a priority after Clinton’s famous failure to visit during her general election campaign that it selected Milwaukee to host its 2020 National Convention. Biden never bothered to show up. Two weeks later, he seems to recognize that he can ill afford to bypass the state this time. If he had, he wouldn’t have just conceded the law-and-order issue to Trump. He might well have ended up conceding Wisconsin — and with it perhaps the presidency to Trump as well.
Only time — or perhaps the next round of polling in Wisconsin — will tell whether Biden’s visit was enough to alter the dynamics of the race in what could again be the deciding state this November