You can’t miss the pink bus in the hotel parking lot in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin.
“Women for Trump” is printed on the side, with a number to send a text message expressing support. Mercedes Schlapp worked in President Trump's White House, but now she’s riding this bus, pushing the campaign’s re-election message.
“We’re going to be very loud this week,” she tells me when I meet her in that hotel parking lot. “Hillary Clinton failed in her playbook here in Wisconsin, and I think Joe Biden is following that same playbook by not showing up in person.”
Oh yes, Joe Biden. The Democrats. This is the week of the Democratic National Convention, which was supposed to mean 50,000 screaming partisans would pack Milwaukee and fill a sports arena. The coronavirus pandemic altered those plans and Biden will accept the nomination from his home state of Delaware instead.
In downtown Milwaukee, you would hardly know a convention had even been planned. An older couple named Dan and Helen stopped to speak with us on the eve of the convention.
“It is disappointing,” Dan says. “We were very much looking forward to it.” His wife adds, “We tried to be ambassadors for the city since we live right in the area.”
The strategies have been set. For Biden, it's safety first. Team Trump shows up in person. It’s just too early to determine which approach will be more effective. The Real Clear Politics average of the polls show Biden leading here by 6.5 points, but Democrats know it’s too early to claim victory. They remember 2016.
Tom and Becky Abbott provide a cautionary tale for both campaigns. Both voted for Trump when he won here by the slimmest of margins four years ago. Now they’re undecided.
“I’ve got a decision to make,” Tom tells me. “I was a Trump supporter, but I just started to distance myself.”
Becky, like her husband, hasn’t yet made up her mind. She’s upset with the president’s handling of the pandemic.
“I feel it was handled very poorly. As a family, we have to be cautious. Both of my children have underlying conditions, so we’re very supportive of masks. I wish he [Trump] would have been more vocal about the support for masks from the beginning.”
They’re both open to considering a vote for Biden, but Tom Abbott says there’s a catch. He wants to see the former vice president in person.
“I like to see that he takes that interest,” he says. Abbott remembers Hillary Clinton didn’t take that interest in 2016, and wants Biden to come to Wisconsin and earn his vote.
Wisconsin voters, in many ways, decided the election of 2016 and they know they might be tasked with the same responsibility this year. If this were a normal campaign, we’d be uber-focused on economic data here.
On a relative basis, Wisconsin has a story worth telling. The pandemic hit the state hard, but the unemployment rate has come down to 8.5% from a peak of 13.6% in April. As a point of comparison, New York’s rate of unemployment remains at 15.7%.
Voters recognize that, but they also recognize 2020 is different. The pandemic is different. The election is different. The approaches of the two campaigns are very different.