Where the real battle for votes lies

Juneau County, Wisconsin, is prime Trump country, but conditions seem ripe for Democrats to mitigate their losses there

Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin lost Juneau County by 771 votes in 2018 but was reelected to the Senate nonetheless. In presidential elections, however, no candidate since 1960 has won nationwide without winning the bellwether county. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin lost Juneau County by 771 votes in 2018 but was reelected to the Senate nonetheless. In presidential elections, however, no candidate since 1960 has won nationwide without winning the bellwether county. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 12, 2019 at 6:30am

Call it President Donald Trump’s Guadalcanal: Like the tiny island U.S. Marines invaded in World War II to break Japan’s Asia-Pacific chokehold, little Juneau County, Wisconsin, is where Trump needs to halt the Democrats’ advance. 

The struggle for 2020 hearts and minds is more than a referendum on the tweeter-in-chief’s behavior — it’s about the “future of work.” For counties like Juneau and others in battleground states, a thriving middle class means a restored American manufacturing base.

That’s something politicians of both parties have paid lip service to for years. But a trash-talking real estate mogul and reality TV star from Queens has become the real deal for many.

“The Trump trade agenda has given us the largest increase in manufacturing employment last year in 20 years,” says Jeff Ferry, chief economist for the Coalition for a Prosperous America, a group of domestic manufacturers, farmers and labor unions. (GOP free traders would argue the 2017 tax cuts were more responsible, but if Trump gets the credit, so be it.)

On its face, Juneau County is prime Trump country: older, poorer, whiter, less educated and more rural, male and manufacturing-heavy than the national average. In 2016, Trump clobbered Hillary Clinton there by 26 points — a 3,057-vote win that contributed about 13 percent of his 0.8-point overall margin in the Badger State.

[Race ratings: Wisconsin among 3 initial presidential toss-ups]

The blowout was striking since Juneau voters backed Barack Obama twice; in fact no candidate since 1960 has won the presidency without winning this bellwether county. It’s possible to win statewide without Juneau, but outperforming Clinton helps: In their 2018 victories, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers lost Juneau by 1,442 votes, and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, also a Democrat, lost there by 771.

Conditions seem ripe for Democrats to mitigate their losses.

The manufacturing revival Trump promised has cooled this year after torrid growth in 2018, when U.S. manufacturers added 264,000 jobs. That’s slowed to 76,000 over the past 12 months; updated state figures haven’t been released, but Wisconsin was down 7,700 manufacturing jobs year-over-year through October.

Purchasing manager surveys released the week of Dec. 2 had mixed findings, but respondents agreed trade uncertainty was clouding the outlook. In addition, Wisconsin dairy farmers are hurting because of lost Chinese export sales.

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Ferry argues that exchange rate policies in China and elsewhere have pushed down their currencies against the U.S. dollar, hurting American manufacturers abroad while lowering import costs. That, along with lower oil prices, has fed the manufacturing slowdown this year — not the trade war, he says. Taxing foreign capital inflows to the U.S., as proposed by Baldwin and Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, could weaken the dollar and help domestic manufacturers and farmers, Ferry says. 

Ferry adds that the 2017 tax law didn’t do enough to rein in multinationals’ offshore profit shifting, leaving domestic manufacturers at a disadvantage. Fix that and the Treasury could be flush with cash to cut tax rates, increase infrastructure spending and boost demand for U.S.-made iron and steel.

Nonetheless the outlook is much improved, says Ferry, noting that companies like Williams-Sonoma and Stanley Black & Decker are bringing manufacturing jobs home from overseas. And despite the tariffs, higher inflation hasn’t materialized; consumers are still spending at a brisk clip, offsetting a downturn in business investment. Democrats tell him privately that Trump is “doing the right thing on trade,” Ferry says.

In Juneau County there’s been some trade-related pain, says Terry Whipple, head of the county’s Economic Development Corporation. Still, Whipple says he’s never seen better conditions in 17 years on the job. The trade war “has hurt, but I think a lot of [manufacturers] understand that this has been a long time in coming, to stand up to China.  . . .  We’ve been bowing to China and losing to China for a long time.”

The manufacturing workforce has shrunk by about one-third since 1980, when the U.S. granted China “most-favored nation” trade status; losses accelerated after 2000, when MFN was made permanent. Various studies show Chinese import competition played a significant role, although they differ on how much weight to place on trade versus other factors like technological improvements.

Juneau manufacturers weathered the storm better than most, losing jobs at a rate only about half the national average. Whipple says that’s because Juneau doesn’t have as much of the old labor-intensive manufacturing that was decimated, such as apparel; instead, companies focused on skilled trades like machining and metalworking. The problem has become less about a lack of jobs than a shortage of workers with the right skills.

“We’re training too many young people with useless degrees,” Ferry says. Proposals like student loan relief and free health care paid for with higher taxes on the rich appeal to that slice of the electorate, but it won’t sell with older voters in places like Juneau County, says Whipple.

“The problem with the Democrats is none of them have gone far enough to outline an industrial strategy,” adds Ferry. “There’s too much emphasis on redistribution, and that’s not a long-term solution.”

If enough Wisconsin voters agree, it may not matter that Trump is likely to become the first impeached president ever to be on the ballot a second time.