TREMPEALEAU, Wis. – Nov. 8, 2016 elicited a lot of hand-wringing, name-calling and finger-pointing among Democrats trying to come to terms with Donald Trump’s shocking election victory.
But for Democratic Wisconsin state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, that day prompted something much more constructive: In her words, “a journey of trying to figure out what happened.”
Vinehout represents Wisconsin’s 31st state Senate district, which covers Trempealeau County and parts of several other rural counties in western Wisconsin, historically a Democratic stronghold that Trump dominated last November.
Vinehout began her journey by speaking to election judges and county clerks in her district. Then she drove to the courthouse in Whitehall, the Trempealeau County seat, to pour over ward-level voting data. “I physically counted new voter registrations,” she said when we met at her office in the state capitol in Madison. “I counted 1,666 new voter registrations, which is roughly about 12 percent of the total vote in 2016 in Trempealeau County.” In Whitehall, for example, she found that a quarter of voters in 2016 had never voted before.
“This was a story nobody was telling around the state or around the country. I started doing more research and looking around the state at what the patterns were, and I realized the story nobody’s telling is that there are two different sets of people that came to the polls in 2012 and came to the polls in 2016.
The story of who those new voters were and how Trump motivated them to vote is one both Democrats and Republicans should be interested to learn.
Trempealeau County is home to quiet towns and quaint villages nestled among rolling hills in the rugged Upper Mississippi River Valley. Most of the county’s 30,000 residents are white, churchgoing, employed and fond of hunting, fishing, camping or canoeing. Yet despite its conservative makeup, Trempealeau has historically voted for Democratic candidates for president. Barack Obama won the county twice by double digits.
Hillary Clinton was expected to win here too. As Election Day approached, almost every poll had her ahead comfortably, and pundits made fun of the attention the Trump campaign was giving the region. A Daily Beast journalist wrote, “If the Trump campaign believes flipping southwestern Wisconsin could happen this year, I’d like a slice of whatever cheese it is they’re eating.”
The Clinton campaign took a similarly cavalier approach to Wisconsin. Hillary Clinton didn’t visit the state, which “was something that got people angry,” said Trempealeau County Times managing editor Andrew Dannehy. “That ticked people off, like she didn’t care about Wisconsin.” Meanwhile, Trump appeared in the state five times during the general election campaign.
Trump won the county by 13 points. He swung 22 Wisconsin counties that voted for Obama in 2012, including 11 in the rural western part of the state. This helped him become the first Republican to win Wisconsin in 32 years.
Trump received about the same number of votes in the state as the 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. But while Romney did well in the suburbs, Trump thrived in rural places like Trempealeau. Trump also benefited from a mediocre opponent.
“Hillary did not appeal to rural people,” University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political scientist Joe Heim said. “There’s something about the Clintons that seemed to be money-grabbing, a little crass, elitist. She focused too much on ‘Don’t vote for him, he’s terrible’ instead of what she was going to do for America.”
It didn’t help that Clinton represented a party that many rural voters no longer recognize. The Democrats’ increasing liberalism is out of step with parts of the country where guns and God still hold much sway.
Dannehy said that Trump’s urban sensibility didn’t immediately resonate with Wisconsin voters. “Can you imagine him on a dairy farm?” he laughed. “It’s kind of fun to imagine, though.”
And although Sen. Ted Cruz easily won the Republican primary, Trempealeau was onboard the Trump train from the beginning. Trump won half the primary votes of the county’s Republicans.
Trempealeau’s state representative, Treig Pronschinske, also surprised pundits by winning in 2016. He said Trump won because, despite being an “East Coast guy,” he convinced people that, as someone who has succeeded in life, he would help America succeed too.
Trump’s uncouthness may have helped him here too, said Heim. “Rural people are not terribly sophisticated in a general way. You hear people criticize him for his lack of vocabulary. That didn’t bother rural people. They understood him and knew what he was trying to get at. He gets down to very basic things and that’s exactly what they want to hear.”
Vinehout said she could tell by the voting data that many people voted for the first time as family groups in 2016. Heim saw the same trend. He talked to a 92-year-old woman in Trempealeau who registered and voted for the first time in 2016. He’s pretty sure she cast her vote for Trump.
According to Vinehout, the lesson of 2016 is that “You need to throw out the rule book that says you don’t talk to people who have never voted before. [A]s a candidate, I bet I’ve gone to 13 candidate trainings, all somehow Democratic-influenced. Every one of them has said, don’t worry about talking to people who are not registered. Somebody else will do that.”
Democrats can learn from the Trump campaign, she said. Instead of placing voters on a political or ideological spectrum, she said, put them on a continuum of engagement—“from really engaged to ‘I don’t give a damn.’” She continued:
“We need to take the people that are the in the ‘I don’t give a damn’ category and move them a little bit closer to civic engagement and get them to vote. The people that do vote but don’t do anything else, move them a little bit closer and get them to put up a yard sign, etc. I think when we look at that, at that continuum, we’re then fighting over 30 to 40 percent of the electorate, not three to four percent of it.”
For Democrats, much of that 30-40 percent can be found in the rural Midwest. “Democrats have to reconnect with rural voters,” Heim said. “[The Democrats] are a party of coalitions and they’ve sort of forgotten rural voters. Most of the groups that they’re interested in tend to be in urban areas. And they’ve lost track of the rural voter and they have to start paying attention to those people.”
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