Donald Trump speaks during a 2016 campaign rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Trump won the state by 10 points in 2016. This year, "in poll numbers in Iowa, Trump is stuck," says Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University political science professor. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

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On election night 2016, Democrats across the country watched in horror as Donald Trump won Michigan and Wisconsin. These Midwestern states had long been considered part of the Democrats’ blue firewall in presidential elections, but in flipping them, Trump ensured his Electoral College victory over Hillary Clinton.

Four years later, the road to the White House again runs through the Upper Midwest, which has been roiled by racial unrest and the coronavirus pandemic. The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the subsequent police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, followed by the killing of two protesters by a 17-year-old with an AR-15, have become a national focal point. At the same time, a debate over masks and how to respond to coronavirus have blazed across the Midwest, with armed protesters and militiamen protesting Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

In the Democratic presidential primary, Joe Biden positioned himself as the candidate best suited to winning back working-class voters in the Midwest, and polls have shown him with leads in key battleground states—Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, and Iowa. However, the race is in deep flux, and polls proved problematic in 2016. So far, 2020 has proved to be an exceedingly uncertain year.

“A lot of Democrats won in the Midwest in 2018, but their patterns of support changed,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Democratic U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown “did worse in eastern Ohio but made up for it in urban areas. As of 20-30 years ago, Franklin [Columbus] and Hamilton [Cincinnati] were Republican counties. In places like Minnesota’s Iron Range, Democrats are fading. Now again, Democrats in 2018 did much better there than Clinton did, but relative to the position those places used to hold, they’ve gotten more Republican.”

Clinton famously took Michigan and Wisconsin for granted, spending her time and money on other states, but, even during this pandemic-reduced campaign, Biden has worked the region and visited the states. 

“Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin remain at the center of the election,” Kondik said. “I guess you could come up with a way that Biden could win without all of them, but I don’t see how Biden wins without winning at least two of those three. Biden hasn’t been traveling much, but to the extent he has been traveling, he was in Scranton [Pennsylvania], in Kenosha [Wisconsin], going to Michigan.”

Trump campaigned in those states, too, but his contracting Covid-19 has raised questions about the scope of his rallies in the future.

Wisconsin and Michigan

Wisconsin, 29.9% rural, stands with Pennsylvania as one of the most consequential states in the 2020 race. From the prominence of its 10 votes in the Electoral College to Kenosha’s cornerstone role in the issue of policing and law and order, Wisconsin occupies a place at the heart of the presidential race.

Barack Obama and running mate Biden won the state by 14 points in 2008 and 7 in 2012. Clinton won big in the Madison and Milwaukee metro areas, but lost in the rest of the state, with Republicans flipping some counties and running up the score in several rural counties that once tracked closely to statewide results. Statewide, Clinton lost by less than 1 point. 

Trump won Michigan, 25.4% rural, by spiking margins in the northern part of the state, while Clinton lost margins from 2012 in Detroit and its suburbs. Trump narrowly edged out Clinton by 0.3 points. Democrats bounced back in 2018, sweeping statewide races, flipping two House seats and passing ballot measures to legalize marijuana and expand voting rights.

Michigan seems to be a place where Trump has energized Democrats. The president seems unable to build on his 2016 numbers, while Biden and other Democrats are attracting more suburban voters. The president is most popular in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, but for its geographic size, the region’s share of the vote is fairly small. 

Vice President Joe Biden, speaking in September at the Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry in Manitowoc, was part of the winning ticket with Barack Obama in the state in 2008 and 2012. Trump narrowly won the state in 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Polling averages have shown Biden with about a 5 point lead in both Michigan and Wisconsin. 

“One of the big questions for the election in November is, can Trump replicate his landslide showing in so many largely white, rural counties or small cities?” Kondik said.

“Does he do worse? Then he’ll probably not win again. Does he do the same? Then he’ll probably not win because of losing votes in cities and suburban areas. Or does he do better? He might be able to win. Prior to the pandemic, I thought Trump could improve on some of those places, especially if the third-party vote is smaller. Now, I’m not so sure because the president’s position seems weaker.”

Iowa

Outside the Michigan and Wisconsin battlegrounds, both parties are trying to flip additional Midwest states, with Republicans hoping to win Minnesota, a 26.7% rural state that Clinton won by a point and a half, and Democrats pushing to turn Iowa, a 36.0% rural state that Trump won by nearly 10 points.

“Iowa has been a purple state,” said Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University political science professor. “The pendulum has swung back and forth between Democrats and Republicans for the presidency. In poll numbers in Iowa, Trump is stuck. He’s not progressing. He’s not gaining anything.”

Meanwhile, growth around Iowa’s cities and a suburban shift toward Democrats should give Biden a better chance in Iowa than Clinton had in 2016.

“We have some of the fastest growing and very prosperous suburbs in places like Cedar Rapids and Des Moines,” Schmidt said. “Women are a big part of the prosperity of those communities. The Democrats have been successful with the gender gap. There is a lot of discussion about this year being perhaps the most enormous gender gap for Republicans because of some of the things Trump has done.”

There are enough people in a handful of urban and suburban counties to offset larger aggregations of rural counties. In 2018, for example, Democratic businesswoman Cindy Axne defeated Republican incumbent David Young in Iowa’s 3rd congressional district, which includes Des Moines and the southwestern corner of the state.

“Cindy Axne won one county, Polk, and lost the other 15 in more rural parts of the district,” said University of Northern Iowa political science professor Chris Larimer. “That’s what Iowa looks like: you can win one county like that and still win the district. Iowa has 99 counties and roughly 2.1 million active voters, but you can get to about half that number just by looking at 10 counties. They’re mostly urban counties, and seven of those 10 generally lean Democratic. In that way, Iowa mirrors the rest of the country.”

That dynamic is playing out not only in the presidential race but in Iowa’s U.S. Senate campaign between first-term U.S. Senator Joni Ernst and Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield, a businesswoman who unsuccessfully ran for the 3rd District seat in 2018. 

“Ernst was elected as a moderate but has moved toward Trump,” Schmidt said. “There’s a sense that if you don’t align yourself with Trump you’ll be defeated.”

That close alignment protected Ernst against an intra-party challenge, but it’s bound her fate to the president’s.

“She’s distinguished herself from the president a little bit on ethanol or being against exemptions for oil on the renewable fuel standard, and in favor of renaming military bases named after Confederate generals,” Larimer said. “But she was a prominent speaker during the Republican National Convention, and she sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee” — tasked with vetting Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. 

“The perception of her seems to be closely linked to the perception of the president,” Larimer said.

Parts of Trump’s presidency have hurt his rural constituents in Iowa, including his administration’s attacks on the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and its trade war with China, which has hurt the roughly 42,000 Iowa farmers who grow soybeans, who in 2019 grew about 502 million bushels, or 14% of the national total.

The farm crisis and trade war are “another burr in the foot of the Trump administration” in the Midwest, said Schmidt, but likely haven’t appreciably hurt the president’s standing among his rural supporters.

“Most people who voted for him have no business with agriculture or exports or tariffs, so there are other things with Trump they still would like to support,” he said. “Abortion, political correctness, stopping socialism, preventing tax increases, all of that. People who really like Trump, they’re going to vote for him.”

Minnesota

Trump came within 45,000 votes of winning Minnesota in 2016. Had he won, he’d have been the first Republican to win the state’s electoral votes since Richard Nixon in 1972. Not even Ronald Reagan won Minnesota.

Voting history notwithstanding, Aaron Brown said he still sees an enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans.

“The people who like Trump really really buy into it, not just as ‘I like Trump’ but as an identity, as a central element of who they are,” said Brown, an independent journalist in the Iron Range who blogs at minnesotabrown.com. “That’s how Trump is even in this race.”

Polling through the fall has shown Biden with a steady lead in the presidential race, and Democratic incumbent Tina Smith with a lead in the race for U.S. Senate, leading many analysts to remove Minnesota from the list of battleground states.

But Brown lives in a part of the state that is trending Republican. The Iron Range long served as a hotbed for Democrats anchored in union mines. But the region began to tilt Republican in 2010, and Trump spiked the margin in 2016. Amid the Democratic wave of 2018, Republicans flipped the 8th congressional district — an Obama/Obama/Trump district that, with the exception of a one-term Republican, had been Democratic going back to 1947.

Brown said the district’s voters have consistently defined themselves against the big city “other,” whether historically as union Democrats or now as Trumpists.

“It’s a political guild centered around one man and the notion of thumbing one’s nose at the outside world, which now they perceive as Democratic and liberal, not as corporatist and rich and cruel,” Brown said. “They see liberals now in the same role, wearing the same clothes as their old enemies, the suburban Republicans. Only now the suburban Republicans have become Democrats, which does not help the matter.”

These voters don’t define themselves by policy but by a cultural identity. As with Iowa, the effects of the trade war on agriculture go by the wayside when stacked against rural identity issues in politics.

“I would lean towards … all of that not mattering when the farmer sits down with their friends from the corner store who they meet for coffee,” Brown said. “When they get their ballot, if it’s on their mind,  it’s more in the realm of a compromise I have to make to keep left-wing hordes from ravaging my small town. I think the culture war wins.”

That dynamic is playing out not just in Minnesota, but across the Upper Midwest and rural America. 

“An us-versus-them dynamic is baked into states like Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin,” Brown said. “Those states are complex and difficult.”