© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Episode 9: Here we go again

Joe Biden and Donald Trump
Matt Rourke & Evan Vucci
Associated Press
A look at how President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are courting Wisconsin voters.

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are once again vying for Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes. Here’s how they’re making their case.

This is Swing State of the Union, a podcast all about why Wisconsin is so important to U.S. politics.

Today, we’re looking at the 2024 election – how campaigns are being funded and how the candidates are courting the state. But we’ll start with some issues supporters are pushing, with ads you may have already seen.

As we talked about in Episode 7, many of the ads you see during election season aren’t funded by a campaign or candidate. Instead, they’re funded by organizations, often PACs or super PACs, and they don’t specifically tell you who to vote for – because that would be illegal.

Instead, these ads focus on issues that are important to voters – or at least issues they hope will rally voters either for or against a political party. Twenty years ago, these kinds of ads weren’t as common. But since the rulings in cases like Citizens United and others, these ads have become omnipresent.

JR Ross keeps track of these ads on WisPolitics.com and he joins us to talk about some of the issue ads we’re already seeing in this election cycle from presidential candidates to congressional candidates.

Sam Woods: We'd like to start with an issue that a lot of voters are saying is top of mind, which is abortion, abortion rights. Here's an ad that speaks to this issue in Wisconsin.

Ad: Imagine you need life-saving care in an emergency, imagine someone you loved does - only to be turned away. That's what's at stake as the Supreme Court decides whether hospitals are allowed to provide abortion care to save a patient's life. It could lead to politicians restricting other life-saving care. And interfering in doctor's ability to do their jobs or even throwing them in jail. Don't let politicians take away life saving health care.

Woods: It doesn't seem like the ad is advocating for a specific candidate, maybe against a candidate, but not for a specific candidate. What's the goal with this type of advertising?

JR Ross: It is part of a message you're going to see overall about abortion. Democrats had a better than expected year in 2022 in part because of abortion. I mean typically the party in power in the White House struggles in midterm election. Democrats didn't do great in some places in 2022, but they won some places they weren't expected to or did better than expected to in part to the abortion issue. They feel like that is a salient issue again in 2024. The driving the message if Trump were to win, he could push a national abortion ban. He could restrict access to abortion services. You know, just all kinds of things. If you look at the big picture of issues that voters are focused on inflation is a huge one, right? The economy from an accurate point of view is doing quite well. It's growing. We're adding jobs. It's good in that regard, but people feel like it's not going well in general because prices are going up. They feel insecure. How do you combat that issue? That's a tough one to fix in the next, you know, five months. The border, another issue, like inflation - Republicans have an advantage on that issue. If you look at the polls, look if the polls are correct, then Republicans have advantage on those issues. Democrats have an advantage on abortion. It is clear that Republicans are struggling mightily on how to address that issue with a base that wants no exceptions, maybe exceptions for rape, incest, life of the mother and electorate that is much of a spot on that issue.

Joy Powers: You know, as you mentioned it is hard to combat some of these issues that people are saying are very important for them. For Republicans, that's going to be abortion. For Democrats, that's the economy. Of course, the economy is a perennial issue in election years. But we are hearing a new term in political ads. We're hearing Biden-nomics. Here is an ad actually on that issue.

Ad: Americans still think the economy is struggling. Sixty percent of workers say their income has not been enough to keep up with inflation. Anybody who's gone to the grocery store or filled up their gas tank in the last month knows that the bills are going up a little bit. Again. Gas was up a little bit. Food was up a little bit. Egg-flation is bad. Definitely costing more go about your daily routine. Listen Americans, it's not working. Folks, it’s no accident. That's Biden-nomics in action.

Powers: Now, of course this was another issue ad, but it's not just taking aim at Biden, although his name is used, it's also taking aim at Tammy Baldwin, and I would guess a number of other Democrats. What are they driving home here?

Ross: So Joe Biden thought it would be a good idea to coin this phrase Biden-nomics and really pitch that things like the Inflation Reduction Act and other things they've done are driving this economic boom, they're good for Americans. Opponents love the fact that Joe Biden is basically placed his name on something with economics in the word because most voters don't feel that great about the economy right now. Again, from an academic point of view, someone who studies, you know, economics, you would say that our economy has been fairly strong. But from a personal point of view, people are struggling to pay their bills. Republicans are going to hammer on that issue over and over again, and what did Bill Clinton say in 1982? It's the economy, stupid. It's what drives things. The economy is going well and people feel good, other issues then tend to over shadow the economy. When people aren't feeling very good about the economy, it drives things. That has been tried and true cycle in and cycle out. So it’s just a matter of Republicans trying to lasso the Biden-nomics tag around Joe Biden and Tammy Baldwin and any Democrat running anywhere in the country this fall to say your struggles, your higher grocery bill, it's all because of Biden-nomics and Democrats.

Powers: You know, in some ways it feels like we're in the very early days of this still, even though we are, you know, getting pretty deep into 2024. Do you expect there to be, you know, a greater kind of flow of ads as we are getting closer and closer to November?

Ross: Oh yeah, my joke has been if I had been smarter, I would have bought TV station in Wisconsin 25 years ago. They make money hand over fist. It seems like every fall because of the millions and millions dumped. Because if you look at it, there may be six states that really matter. Some lists have seven. You know, it just depends on which list you look at. But every list I see has Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, Arizona and Georgia. Of those six, Joe Biden has to win every state he took in 2020 and Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania and he's president for another four years. He can lose Nevada, lose Arizona, lose Georgia and be fine. Now if he loses Wisconsin, Michigan or Pennsylvania, he needs to pick up other states, right? He's a grab one of those at least. But if you think about how these those states traditionally vote, it's hard to see how Joe Biden loses the quote unquote blue wall of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, but then wins in Nevada and in Arizona and in Georgia. I've been covering Wisconsin politics for almost, well, 24.5 years at this point. Every presidential election I've covered in my career has been decided by 22,000 votes or less, except for two. And Barack Obama was on the ballot in both of those. The other ones Joe Biden won by less than 21,000 votes in 2020. Donald Trump less than 22,000 in 2016, John Kerry won Wisconsin by less than 12,000 votes in 2004, and Al Gore won it by less than 6,000 votes in 2000. Like we are perpetually on the razor's edge when it comes to presidential elections. We could not be more purple. What suggests it’s gonna be different this fall? Polls, they’re snapshots in time. But everyone that I see has Joe Biden and Donald Trump within a point or two. So what suggests it is going different this fall? We're going to matter and it and campaigns feel like when a state matters, you go spend money there. So ads are not the end all be all. You still have to have an organization which means like offices and volunteers and paid staffers and knocking doors and turning people out. But they want to communicate to people as much as they can via TV, via digital, via radio, and so it's going to be a very, very heavy October, November Wisconsin on TV. Do you wanna break? Go watch TV like in Illinois, maybe? Or Indiana. You won't see as many ads because they don't matter in a presidential race. But we've got a contested presidential race. We've got a Senate race that could help determine the balance of the U.S. Senate. We have two congressional races that might end up playing a role in who controls the House. Like you couldn't be more important than Wisconsin if you tried. There may be a couple of states that are equally important, but it's hard to find one that's more important at all three of those federal levels than Wisconsin is.

JR Ross is the editor of WisPolitics.com and a regular WUWM contributor.

And Ross’ comment about buying TV stations is no joke. It costs money to run ads and often the people paying for them are the same people contributing to campaigns or super PACs.

Sarah Bryner is the director of research and strategy at OpenSecrets, a research group tracking money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy. She joins us to explore who is funding these state and presidential campaigns and super PACs.

Joy Powers: What are some prominent examples of super PACs that people might be familiar with? Or if not familiar with them, familiar with their ads?

Sarah Bryner: Yeah. So a lot of them actually have names. It's very similar to the main messaging of the political campaigns. So the biggest super PACs this cycle are Make America Great Again Inc. - sounds familiar, related to Trump. And that so far has spent almost $70 million supporting Trump and opposing Biden. Another one that people in Florida probably would have heard of, but then also anyone who was following the Republican primary closely, was Never Back Down, which spent a huge amount of money, nearly 40 million supporting Ron DeSantis. The Democrats certainly have their fair shake of super PACs as well. Feature Forward USA is the Biden linked super PAC. American Bridge runs a lot of pro-liberal super PACs. Priorities USA was the super PAC that supported Barack Obama and then got taken over by Biden later. We have the Lincoln Project, which opposes Trump. So there's really a lot. There's also things like the League of Conservation Voters that have super PACs that are involved. It's essentially, in many cases, another vessel through which political committees can support or oppose candidates. They also oftentimes do have PACs, and they often also are linked to nonprofits or unions.

Powers: Are there any Wisconsin examples that spring to mind?

Bryner: There are, and there's some interesting stories behind that. There are two that are primarily of interest to the Republican side, one called Restoration PAC, which is largely funded by mega donor Richard Uihlein, who's involved in a lot of politics across the country but really has a lot of interest in Wisconsin and Illinois. He sets up super PACs for specific states, but they're all kind of part of the same network. The other one is newer and it's called Fix Washington PAC. The interesting story behind Fix Washington PAC is that it's a super PAC supporting Eric Hovde and is funded almost entirely by Eric Hovde’s brother Steven. On the democratic side, there's a super PAC called Win Senate PAC supporting Tammy Baldwin, really opposing Eric Hovde that we don't know much about because they haven't filed their reports yet, but largely we would expect it to look a lot like the other kinds of Democratic super PACs funded by the same sorts of millionaire Democratic supporters. And this is kind of a classic situation where you'll have a state specific super PAC that really is run lockstep in line with the national party apparatus.

Powers: You mentioned, you know, they haven't filed yet, so it seems like they can be tracked to some extent. Is that accurate?

Bryner: Super PACs are required to disclose their donors and they do. Problem is that oftentimes the donors to these sorts of super PACs are themselves unknowable committees. So we would call that like gray money, where you have a nonprofit about which we don't know the donors or a legal liability corporation, which might be completely unknowable, as the major donors to these super PACs.

Sam Woods: And regarding presidential races, who is donating to these two candidates?

Bryner: Both candidates are seeing a bit of a come down in their overall fundraising from previous cycles, so they're not generating a ton of enthusiasm, particularly Trump, although that looks like it is turning around. Who knew what a felony conviction could do to a candidate’s fundraising success until now. So it does look like he's picking up a bit, but I'd say that for the most part, Biden's campaign is funded by classic big Democratic donors- so unions, these would be people from major universities, these would be venture capitalists who support Democratic candidates. I know George Soros is on that list. Fred Eychaner, who runs a media corporation. So it really runs the gamut of sort of classic Democratic supporters and then also a lot of small donors. Trump is a little different. He also relies pretty heavily on small donors, although that's been a bit of a come down this cycle too, although again, like I said, it might turn around and then he also is benefiting from the support of major Republican donors, like, for example, Richard Uihlein, Ken Griffin, names that might be common place names to me, maybe not to everyone in the country. But some of these big Republican donors, Diane Hendricks, actually, is a big Republican and Trump donor. She runs a corporation in southern Wisconsin. Linda McMahon, they're kind of frequently on these kinds of lists.

Powers: Now you mentioned one of the super PACs, but who has been donating to both of the Senate campaigns here in Wisconsin?

Bryner: Also a little bit of a complicated question, because who's been donating the Eric Hovde? Nobody. He's really self financing and what he has received from individual donors, we don't know a lot about that yet because he filed and started running so late in the cycle. So I think he's raised $780,000 from large donors, which is nothing in a competitive Senate race. And then he's put 8 million into the race, at least so far as that, that April report. That probably will change, especially if the race looks like it's going to be competitive. Tammy Baldwin, different story, she has brought a bunch of money from previous cycles. She also is a huge recipient of union money and then also kind of like Biden, a lot of donations from classic Democratic donors, but no self financing for her. And then she does get money from small donors, probably less than some of the sort of huge small donor candidates, but a pretty healthy chunk. I think something like 30% of her money comes from small donors, which is pretty significant for a Senate race.

That was Sarah Bryner, the research director at OpenSecrets, an organization that tracks money in politics. Next, we’ll look at how the two major party presidential candidates are courting Wisconsin and its 10 critical electoral votes.

The candidates aren’t just courting voters with ads.

In a state like Wisconsin where the margin of victory is likely to be thin, both Donald Trump and Joe Biden are making regular visits to the state. Biden announced his student loan debt repayment plan in Madison in April, and in other visits Biden and his surrogates often tout economic investments in the state.

In May, Biden visited Racine County to tout investments in the area, in the form of a Microsoft data center. The site is significant symbolically. It’s the same place Trump was in in 2018 when he and then-Governor Scott Walker broke ground on what was dubbed “Wisconn Valley.”

The site was to be a manufacturing plant for Foxconn, an electronics manufacturing company. It promised 13,000 jobs and $10 billion dollars in investment around the state, at the cost of $3 billion dollars in state and local tax breaks for the company.

But by 2023, Foxconn had fallen far short of its job and investment goals. In his speech in Racine, Biden took time to remind voters of his opponent’s enthusiastic support for a project Trump called at the time, the “eighth wonder of the world.”

“In fact, he came here with your Senator Ron Johnson, literally holding a golden shovel, promising to build the eighth wonder of the world. Are you kidding me?,” Biden said.

He also spent time talking numbers, comparing his record on Wisconsin job creation to Trump's.

Biden said, “83,500 total jobs left Wisconsin during my predecessor’s term. But that's not on my watch. We're determined to turn it around. Thus far, since we've come to office, we've created, and with the governor’s overwhelming leadership, we've created over 178,000 jobs in Wisconsin. We're going to create more here in Racine and big time.”

But Biden seems to be fighting an uphill battle on economic issues during this campaign. Some voters in Wisconsin, and nationwide, pinned rising prices on his administration, especially at the gas pump and grocery store.

News story clip: “Before the pandemic, all of these groceries, about 30 items, cost $100 on average. Now, five years later, according to Nielsen IQ, all this costs 33% more.”

Angela Lang is the founder and executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, or BLOC, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for Black Milwaukeeans through political advocacy and education. She says that some voters in Milwaukee, a deeply blue city, are still skeptical of Biden’s economic plan.

“What we're hearing is that there are folks that are really frustrated, that they're struggling. They are struggling with cost of child care, housing, all of these different challenges, student loans and yet at a drop of a hat, Congress is able to drop an aid package to this country or that country, and that's where their tax dollars are going while they're at home struggling. And people could be whatever side of you know of foreign policy issue. I think there's various folks following, you know, what's happening in, you know, Ukraine or Gaza. But even if folks aren't following closely, they think of the Tupac line: ‘We got money for war but can't feed the poor.’ Like that, it keeps coming around. And that line was said 30 years ago. And I think that's the root of people's frustration and people want to see that tangible action and people don't want excuses. People are like if he wanted to, he would. Right.? And I think that's how people are feeling of, like, great, you understand the dynamics in Congress, figure out how to get it done anyways,” Lang says.

Trump also visited Racine County recently in June. His speech did not mention Foxconn, but it did take time to connect Biden with inflation and rising mortgage rates in recent year. He also focused on immigration and his plan for what he calls, quote, “the largest deportation operation in American history.”

“Our country is under invasion. We should not be talking amnesty. We should be talking about stopping the invasion instead. This is an invasion of our country,” Trump said.

Immigration and mass deportation is a big theme in Trump's speeches in Wisconsin and nationwide, as he blames immigrants for issues ranging from crime to economic malaise.

So how are these messages landing with Wisconsin voters? Maayan Silver, a reporter for WUWM who covers the 2024 election, has been asking those questions.

Here's what she's heard from voters on immigration.

“Immigration is a big issue for them. Even though we're in Wisconsin, even though we're nowhere near the border, there's this sort of sense of, like, people are coming in to take over our spaces, to take over our resources. There's a little bit of xenophobia there. There's kind of a feeling of like who can come across the border. We don't know who these people are. They're coming from everywhere in the world, not just Mexico, and not just Latin American countries,” Silver says.

It's a talking point that speaks to a partisan divide here in Wisconsin, which we explored in Episodes 5 and 6.

According to the Marquette Law School poll, immigration and border security is the top issue for 37% of Republican voters. For Democratic voters that number is just 3%.

Still, Trump remains a hard sell for some people who would otherwise vote conservative. Silver said that Trump's rhetoric and personality, along with his role in the January 6th insurrection drives this.

“There are conservatives who are now Never Trumpers who are just not going to vote for Trump, and they're very vocal about the fact that they don't like him and they think he's dangerous for this country and some of them actually are voting for Biden,” Silver says.

John Wirth is one of those voters. He describes himself as a quote “William F. Buckley or George Will conservative” endquote, referring to two prominent conservative writers. He said Trump’s personality and foreign policy disturb him.

“The way he treats people generally, the way he refers to people, his beliefs about people who have different religions, his misogyny, but also some of his policies. I think the world is a less safe place with the president who doesn't believe in NATO and who doesn't believe that Putin is a danger to the world and doesn't want to stick up for our allies,” Wirth says.

But while foreign policy may be driving some traditionally conservative voters to Biden, it may also be driving away voters that Democratic candidates typically do well with. On college campuses in Wisconsin and throughout the nation, students set up encampments to protest U.S. military aid for Israel in its war in Gaza.

Trump hasn't supported the student protesters. In fact, he said he would quote, “throw them out of the country.” Silver says for young voters, she's talked to those kinds of threats don't necessarily make it imperative to vote for Biden.

“So for young people, they see the status quo is like, well, Biden's responsible for this. You know, the war with Hamas, Biden's responsible for American policy in that. We don't like it. So there's not the same level of, like you know, even if some of these young progressives are feeling that they don't want Trump in office or that they don't feel like he's a good candidate, it's not as, like this one voter said, dire for them,” Silver says.

Age is another big concern among voters. Biden, at 81, is to date the oldest serving U.S. president, and Trump at 78 years old, would become the oldest president at the time of his inauguration. Silver spoke with college student Elliot Oquist, who succinctly sums up this sentiment.

“I don't know. It just feels like this country is being run by so many old people and that doesn't need to be happening anymore,” Oquist says.

Angela Lang with BLOC believes this lack of urgency to enthusiastically support a candidate is born out of young people’s experience with politics. While older generations may have fond memories of a functioning political landscape, younger generations like Gen Z and Millennials experience centers around a long recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, lingering effects from wars started after 9/11, COVID-19 and a heightened us vs. them dynamic, all while the U.S. Congress has provided little in terms of noteworthy legislation to address these issues.

Because of this, Lang says young people don’t necessarily see either candidate as an answer to these bigger issues.

“And so it's like they came out of the womb having to fight for their lives and their freedom. And so I think they have a stronger threshold. It isn't always a,all right, I'm just going to do the lesser of two evils. I think they are ready to stand in their power and have high expectations for candidates to actually earn their vote,” Lang says.

And expecting more from candidates is a common theme among Wisconsinites this election cycle. Voters like Tony Garnica, who does not affiliate himself with either party, says he doesn’t believe Trump is in the race for the right reasons

“I will vote for Biden because Trump think he's a narcissist. I think he's a liar. I think he is so about himself. He doesn't really care about the country like he says he cares. I don't think he cares. I think he cares about power,” Garnica says.

Biden doesn't carry the level of baggage related to his personality, like Trump does, but his long political career may be coming back to haunt him. Lang says that for some Black voters in Milwaukee, Biden's role in fueling mass incarceration casts a long shadow.

“I think people’s analysis is that if Black folks aren't showing up, we must not care. We must be apathetic. And I think people don't give our community credit for having a more sophisticated political analysis. You know, the president, who was the architect of the ‘94 crime bill, which directly impacts our community. People are like, don't your communities know what's at stake? I've literally gotten an e-mail like last week. I was like, why are you criticizing Biden? Don't you know what happened if Trump gets elected? And I'm like, we fully understand, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be able to dream of a better world, a more just world and hold people accountable. That's what democracy is about,” Lang says.

Though the candidates are the same as in 2020, when Biden won the state by a thin margin, it's unclear how Wisconsin will vote this time around. Both candidates face unique challenges, and current polling shows them neck and neck among likely voters. But what is clear as we head into the November election, all eyes will be on Wisconsin again.

On the final episode of this season of Swing State of the Union, we'll explore the impact of the RNC on Milwaukee, how organizations are connecting with voters on the ground, and what's happening in Wisconsin today that could predict the next nationwide political trend.

“I would say that the big thing that we should be looking for that Wisconsin has the seeds of sort of like I would call it, like, the politicization of everything.”

Live in the swing state, next time on Swing State of the Union.

"Swing State of the Union" is produced by WUWM, Milwaukee’s NPR — a part of the NPR Network. Please subscribe to the "Swing State of the Union" podcast wherever you like to listen.

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Sam is a WUWM production assistant for Lake Effect.