US election: Home of Fonz could decide if Trump or Biden becomes president
Many believe November’s election will be won or lost in suburbs such as Elm Grove, Milwaukee
One of Wisconsin’s tourist attractions is a bronze sculpture of Henry Winkler, aka ‘the Fonz’ from the sitcom Happy Days. Photograph: Bettmann Archive/Getty
The burned-out cars and twisted metal glisten in the hazy sunshine. Clumps of molten tar and smashed glass litter the scorched ground in front of the car lot.
The site, on the corner of a busy thoroughfare in the city of Kenosha, was the home of Car Source, a car dealership. During the violence that erupted in the city following the police shooting of African-American man Jacob Blake last month, the cars outside were torched and the building attacked.
Now it stands as one of the most vivid visual reminders of the violent unrest that took hold in the city.
“Is this what they want to do to our country?” says Anna, a 60-year-old Milwaukee native who has travelled down to Kenosha for the day as she stands amid the ruin. “This is not protest, this is nothing to do with racial equality. This is violence and vandalism, pure and simple,” she says. “It’s what Democrats stand for.”
She and her friend have made the hour-long journey south from Milwaukee to show their support for the community, she says. “I made sure I brought a $50 bill to tip the waitress. This city needs all the help it can get after what happened here.”
Anna, who voted for Donald Trump reluctantly in 2016, says the recent riots have galvanised her belief that the current US president must be re-elected in November.
Joe Biden, she says, is a front for the “socialists” in his party. “Look, black lives matter, but all lives matter too. I don’t understand why we cannot say that in America. Yes, there are bad cops, but the vast majority of Americans are not racist.”
She feels that the media tells only one side of this summer’s racial unrest, and resents the characterisation of Trump supporters that often features in news coverage.
“I see Trump’s faults, but I like that he speaks directly. He cares about this country. He didn’t have to take on this job – he was successful, had plenty of money – but he did it, and he did better than a lot of people, including me, imagined,” she says.
“What’s happened in this country in recent weeks is even more of a reason why I think he will be re-elected.”
Trump is hoping that the issue of law and order, which has moved front and centre over the summer following the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests over racial injustice, will help deliver the election for him in November, particularly in the midwestern heartland.
Milwaukee struggles with the socio-economic and racial divides seen in many US cities
Wisconsin, along with Michigan and Pennsylvania, is one of the key swing states that helped the political outsider secure the 270 electoral college votes he needed to win the White House in 2016.
The state, situated just northwest of Chicago, and touching two of the Great Lakes, had voted Democrat in every election since 1988. Democrats were so sure of victory in the midwestern state that Hillary Clinton did not visit once during the 2016 campaign – a decision the party would rue, and sought to amend by choosing Milwaukee as the site of the Democratic National Convention this year before the coronavirus pandemic resulted in a virtual-only convention.
But as Charles Franklin, a pollster at the Marquette University Law School, points out, Wisconsin has always been a closely-fought state. “The 2016 election was unusual in that a Republican won, because Democrats had won every election since 1988, but many of those wins had been razor-thin margins.
“Three of the last five presidential races were decided by less than a one per cent margin between the Democrats and Republicans. We’ve been a very competitive state over the last 20 years, apart from the two Obama elections which were won by substantial margins.”
In many ways Wisconsin captures some of the contradictions and contrasts that characterise America and its increasingly polarised politics.
Anchored by the two main cities of Milwaukee in the east, and the capital Madison further west, the state has huge swathes of rural counties which tend to vote Republican. A quick glance at the 2016 election map for Wisconsin shows a sea of red, apart from two blue clusters around the urban centres.
The state is 87 per cent white, with the majority of African-Americans living in the greater Milwaukee area and satellite cities such as Kenosha.
“Milwaukee city has long been Democratic territory, but the suburbs are far more Republican,” says Tom Barrett, Milwaukee’s Democratic mayor, who also represented Wisconsin’s fifth congressional district for many years. An Irish-American whose family hails from Co Cork, he has also been heavily involved with the Milwaukee Irish festival which is now in its 40th year.
“The question is will the suburbs remain as Republican as they have been in past elections. Here in the city, the question will be how many people will come out to vote.”
Milwaukee struggles with the socio-economic and racial divides seen in many US cities. From the 1960s the population of the downtown area declined, propelled by the phenomenon of “white flight”, which saw middle class, mainly white people move to the suburbs.
Though today there is a vibrant brewery scene and museum culture in downtown Milwaukee, many of the streets that are lined with magnificent turn-of-the-century and Art Deco buildings are empty, with most people still residing in the suburbs.
Tellingly, one of the city’s tourist attractions is a bronze sculpture of Henry Winkler, aka “the Fonz” from the sitcom Happy Days. The series was set in a suburb of Milwaukee – its nostalgic vision of a carefree, safe and predominantly white America captured the suburban dream of the time and still exists.
Joe Biden can and will win the state, but it’s not anything that he or his campaign can take for granted
Eight miles west of downtown Milwaukee is the suburb of Elm Grove, which was voted the best suburb in America by Business Insider in 2014. Pretty, detached houses with picket fences line the streets. The vast majority of residents are white, with the odd Trump-Pence yard sign scattered here and there.
It is in suburbs such as these not just in Wisconsin, but nationally – that many believe November’s election will be won or lost. During the 2018 mid-term elections, polls show that suburban voters – particularly women – deserted the Republican Party in droves in cities including Atlanta, Philadelphia and Houston.
While analysis suggests that support for Trump may have held up better in suburban counties in Wisconsin than elsewhere, Franklin notes that Republicans are “not getting the same margins they used to be able to count on”, in counties such as Waukesha, where Elm Grove is located.
Trump won fewer votes there than Mitt Romney did in 2012. Meanwhile, Republican Scott Walker missed out on a third term as Wisconsin governor in 2018, losing to the Democrats’ Tony Evers.
As for this time around, polling shows that Democratic candidate Joe Biden is ahead, but his lead has tightened over the summer. A Washington Post-ABC poll this week put Biden at 50 per cent to Trump at 46 per cent among registered voters.
According to Franklin, there are differences between this election and 2016, most notably, fewer undecided voters. “About half as many as people are undecided at this point,” he says. Further, among that smaller pool of undecided voters, polls show that most favour Biden, unlike in 2016 when two-thirds of the undecided voters went for Trump in the last week of the campaign.
Another issue that may influence the outcome of the election is voter participation. Milwaukee was plagued with problems during its primary contest in April, when only five of up to 180 polling sites were open, leading to huge delays. “We were literally losing poll workers by the dozen, as people were afraid about coming to work,” says Mayor Barrett, pointing out that this was during the height of the coronavirus pandemic when stay-at-home orders were in place.
“This time we’re taking multiple, multiple steps to make voting safe and make it secure.” he says, “We’ve got multiple early voting sites, increased the pay for the poll workers, and introduced a range of safety measures.”
Both the city’s major league baseball park and NBC basketball arena have offered their sites for early voting.
With a big rise in postal voting expected, absentee ballots are now being sent to registered voters, after the supreme court ruled this week that a Green Party candidate cannot be included in the ballot – a decision that could have forced the state to reprint thousands of ballots.
As for Democrats’ chances of winning Wisconsin back this time around, Barrett warns that no one should take the state for granted. “I certainly think that Joe Biden can and will win the state, but it’s not anything that he or his campaign can take for granted,” he says, noting that the Trump campaign has a strong ground presence.
Trump visited the state on Thursday. However, Barrett says that the Biden campaign is taking the state seriously with online and increasingly in-person events. “We have had much more contact than we saw four years ago – I think they’ve learned the lesson from 2016.”