- Neither candidate has visited the state in more than a month
- Close race still has not made Wisconsin a battleground state
Wisconsin voters always like a good political fight, but this year they don’t have a ringside seat. In the presidential race, neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump has appeared in the state for more than a month, and unlike recent elections, the local airwaves have been relatively free of political advertising.
Despite a Marquette Law School Poll released Wednesday showing the race a statistical toss-up among likely voters, this is a contest defined by disappointment. Governor Scott Walker had hoped he -- and certainly not Trump -- would be leading the Republican ticket, and Clinton has proved unable to whip up the same voter enthusiasm that helped President Barack Obama easily carry the state in 2008 and 2012.
“I think a lot of people are embarrassed by both of them,” said Jennifer Winter, 54, a tattoo and piercing artist in West Bend. “You’ve got Hillary lying about her e-mails, and Trump saying we’ll just go over to some country and bomb them. You can’t do that.”
While next week’s first presidential debate could change voter attitudes and make Wisconsin, with 10 electoral votes, a battleground in the remaining 6 weeks of the campaign, for now it’s a quiet symbol of bipartisan dissatisfaction with the choices presented by the Republican and Democratic parties.
Indeed, the Marquette Poll shows considerable buyer’s remorse for each candidate. Two-thirds of those supporting Trump say they wish there was another candidate, while half of Clinton’s supporters wish Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders -- who won the Wisconsin primary -- was their nominee.
“As we get close to the election, if it’s a very close election, there’ll be more pressure to come home to your party, rather than risk your party losing because you either didn’t vote or voted for a third party,” said Charles Franklin, who directs the Marquette Poll.
The poll showed 44 percent of likely Wisconsin voters supporting Clinton and 42 percent backing Trump. Twelve percent had no preference. Among all registered voters, Clinton led 43 percent to 38 percent, with 15 percent undecided.
Paul Maslin, a Democratic strategist who was the pollster for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, said the state is coming down from eight years of political adrenaline, starting with Obama’s popularity and followed by an historic recall campaign against Walker, which energized Democrats and Republicans alike.
“Wisconsin is really no different than the rest of the country, with essentially two unpopular people running,” Maslin said in an interview from his office in Madison, the state capital. “Nobody was ever going to be Barack Obama in 2008. In some ways we’re coming off an incredible high and you couldn’t match it.”
After the Republican National Convention in July, Wisconsin was included in a group of industrial states that Trump felt he could win. While Ohio and Pennsylvania remain well-trod battlegrounds for both candidates, Wisconsin has been left behind. There has been no general-election TV advertising by Clinton, her top super-PACs or by Trump, according to the ad-tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG. And none of them have any buys in place.
Wisconsin’s sideline role is a sharp divergence from almost six years of unrelenting partisan warfare in the state. Walker used Republican legislative majorities in 2011 to curb collective bargaining for most public employees. More than 1 million people signed petitions to recall the governor from office. In a campaign that saw a combined $80 million spent -- most of it from out-of-state -- Walker survived the ouster election in June 2012.
Although Obama won the state by 7 percentage points four years ago, Wisconsin was part of the battle, by virtue of U.S. Representative Paul Ryan being the running mate of Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
This year, it could tip the balance for which party controls the U.S. Senate. The Marquette poll found Democrat Russ Feingold leading incumbent Republican Senator Ron Johnson by a margin of 47 percent to 41 percent among likely voters.
Still Wisconsin remains overshadowed by other states.
“Right now the bigger states are more sway-able,” said Ken Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But I caution to say that most of the rules that govern political campaigns have this year been broken.”
Wisconsin voters take presidential elections seriously, consistently turning out in numbers much higher than the national average. Seventy-three percent of the state’s registered voters cast ballots in 2012. Only neighboring Minnesota, with 74.5 percent, turned out more. Across the nation the average was 57.5 percent.
Dissatisfaction is the motivator for Trump supporters, said Lucas Lindmeyer, a 31-year-old student from West Bend studying to be an elementary school teacher.
“I think a lot of people are fed up with the political establishment, especially since so many of them -- John Kasich, George H.W. Bush, even Ted Cruz -- have been attacking Trump," Lindmeyer said. "They’re all part of the same club, putting their power over the interests of the country.”
In Milwaukee County, where yard signs usually define the partisan divide between the city and its surrounding suburbs, there is scant evidence of a presidential contest.
“We don’t even have yard signs around here,” Al Silverstein, a lawyer and Clinton supporter, noted as he shared hamburgers and bottled water with his son, Noah, in Waukesha, just a few blocks from where Walker used to live.
“There’s so much polarization right now,” the 71-year old Silverstein said, recalling that he and a childhood friend can no longer talk about politics. “And he’s my oldest friend, since we were 5 years old.”
But Monday’s debate has the potential to bring the battle back out into the open, Franklin, the Marquette poll director, said.
“That debate will be very hard to ignore,” he said.