Wisconsin Dems Are So Scarred by 2016, They Fear Optimism

Hunter Woodall
·5 min read
Scott Olson
Scott Olson

The day before the 2016 election, Gordon Hintz remembers feeling insecure when it came to Hillary Clinton’s chances at winning Wisconsin.

Even around August of that year, Hintz, then a state representative who is now the Democratic minority leader in the Wisconsin Assembly, said he had been worried that Donald Trump was going to win Wisconsin and the presidency as well. He remembers knocking on doors and finding “gender bias, Clinton fatigue, and a rawness in the electorate that Trump was exploiting.”

And as Wisconsin prepares again to be a closely watched swing state on election night, Hintz is among the Democrats in the state feeling better about Joe Biden’s chances at being able to do what Clinton couldn’t in the state.

“It’s hard to imagine where Donald Trump would get the votes to deliver Wisconsin given that just about every demographic that was a positive for him, either in negating Democrats' advantage or increasing his vote share, is worse than it was in ’16,” Hintz said, predicting a Biden win in the state.

But even with polling favoring Biden and clear determination from Democrats in the state to not repeat past mistakes, the 2016 results aren’t easily forgotten by some as they look to election day even as they tout the work the state party has done. Trump narrowly won Wisconsin by almost 23,000 votes out of the more than 2.97 million cast in the state in the race, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

“Because of 2016 we’re afraid of our own optimism, kind of,” said Allin Walker, the elections officer for the Democratic party of Door County where Trump narrowly won in 2016. “So there has been no let-up just because Biden is doing well in the polls.”

“After 2016, I am not predicting anything and I knock on wood every time I say anything the tiniest bit optimistic,” said Mary Arnold, who is now chair of the Columbia County Democratic Party and described herself as “cautiously optimistic,” even while noting that “nothing is in the bag.”

At the same time, Republicans' rallying cry has often involved some version of the mantra that the polls in 2016 were wrong and they feel the energy on the ground for Trump is even better this time around.

Trump himself spent part of a rally last Friday in Green Bay ranting about an ABC/Washington Post poll that showed him down 17 points in the state. While other polls have shown the president trailing Biden, the former vice president’s lead in the ABC/Post poll was more pronounced.

Trump Ignores Wisconsin’s ‘Really Grim’ COVID Surge for Rally

“I actually do think that the president has a better shot to win Wisconsin than the polls suggest, just because he seems to outperform the polls,” said Stephanie Soucek, the chairwoman of the Door County Republican Party.

But while Trump was able to run in 2016 as a political outsider who reveled in attacking Clinton, 2020 has been far different. This time Trump is burdened by a record and a pandemic his White House has done little to curtail. Instead of encouraging the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommended mitigation tactics, Trump has continued to mock mask-wearing and doubled down on his insistence that the country is “rounding the turn,” even though the claim is demonstrably false. On Saturday, Wisconsin reported 5,278 new coronavirus cases for a new one day high, according to state data.

But while both candidates breezed through the state in recent days, their closing messages might not matter to many voters. The New York Times reported Monday that “absentee turnout in Wisconsin so far amounts to 63 percent of the state’s 2016 electorate.”

Still, Wisconsin Democrats like state Senate Minority leader Janet Bewley were staying busy on the eve of election day. The Democratic National Committee member said Monday morning she was trying not to predict the outcome as she dropped off campaign literature in one of the final acts of campaigning for the 2020 cycle.

“Without having the confirmation of a positive experience four years ago, I feel like Lucy and Charlie Brown with the football,” Bewley said, who described herself as “very cautiously optimistic” about Biden’s chances in the state. “I just don't want to fall flat on my back again in disappointment.”

But by the afternoon before the election, Bewley said in a text message she believes “after all is said and done, we are going to win. Joe Biden will be our next president.”

Trump was set to return again to Wisconsin Monday night for a rally in Kenosha. The area became a flashpoint for anger in August because of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, the 29-year-old Black man who was filmed being shot repeatedly in the back. In the protests that followed Blake’s shooting, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse was charged with murder over allegedly killing two protesters, The Daily Beast previously reported. Trump later defended Rittenhouse during a briefing at the White House.

But on that same day elsewhere in the state, Democrats were looking to put the failures of the past behind them. In a text message, Tammy Wood, the leader of the Sauk County Democratic Party, made clear Monday that she was consumed with reaching out to voters until the very end. In her county, Trump won by just 109 votes in the 2016 contest, according to state election data.

“Democrats all across the state understand how consequential our work is,” Wood said in the message, adding later “too many American(s) are counting on us.”

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