Hillary Clinton Donald Trump

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump face distinct challenges in winning Wisconsin in November.


Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have work to do in Wisconsin.

The presumptive Republican and Democratic presidential nominees face big challenges to get their campaigns in order by the Nov. 8 general election.

Trump, in particular, lacks the assets about which a traditional presidential nominee can boast: polling favorability, broad support in his own party, and a solid campaign ground game.

Stakes are high for both candidates here as they prepare for their parties’ national conventions this month.

For Democrats, Wisconsin is a virtual must-win state to retain the White House.

No Democrat has captured the presidency without carrying Wisconsin since John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Republicans see Trump’s path to a national victory likely going through Rust Belt states, including Wisconsin, filled with the white, blue-collar voters with whom Trump’s message has resonated.

But neither Clinton, the Democrat, nor Trump, the Republican, can build off a victory in Wisconsin’s April 5 presidential primary.

Polls also show here, as nationally, both candidates are viewed unfavorably by a broad swath of voters.

The latest Marquette Law School Poll found Trump viewed unfavorably by 64 percent of registered voters and Clinton viewed unfavorably by 58 percent.

UW-Madison political scientist Barry Burden said there’s no recent example of a presidential race in which both nominees were so disliked — and here in Wisconsin, in which neither won the presidential primary. The Badger State has picked the eventual presidential nominees in both parties each year in its primaries since 1972 with just one exception.

“We’re in unprecedented territory, at least in the last 50 years,” Burden said.

Clinton must woo supporters of Wisconsin primary winner Bernie Sanders. The Marquette poll earlier this month showed one-third of Sanders backers aren’t yet ready to vote for Clinton in November.

Trump faces an even bigger task. He must persuade Wisconsin Republican voters, most of whom opposed him in the primary, to get on board. The latest Marquette poll shows Republicans viewing him more negatively than Democrats view Clinton.

He also must close a sizable deficit with Clinton, who leads him in general election polls, fundraising and campaign organization. The Trump campaign hired a Wisconsin campaign director last week, its second hire in the state so far, while Clinton has created a more robust, traditional campaign apparatus.

Democratic split

On Wednesday, a west Madison field office hummed with young staffers making phone calls and swarming social media on behalf of Clinton and other Democratic candidates, including U.S. Senate hopeful Russ Feingold.

Clinton’s campaign had five paid staffers here in Wisconsin as of last month, according to the Associated Press, and the campaign did not provide an update to that figure for this report. It also is buoyed by the Hillary Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee between her campaign, the Democratic National Committee and 32 state parties — including Wisconsin’s — that finances field offices across the country, including the one in Madison.

There are about 24 field offices operating in Wisconsin, staffed by about 100 paid workers and additional volunteers, according to Brandon Weathersby, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

Gillian Drummond, a spokeswoman for the Clinton campaign in Wisconsin, said the arrangement enables the campaign to work more closely with other Democratic candidates than in years past.

Gaining an edge on the ground is key in states such as Wisconsin, where Clinton’s Democratic primary rival, Sanders, was seen as the choice of the party’s grassroots.

Sanders’ win in the Wisconsin primary gave him a majority of the state’s pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention, by a 48-38 margin.

Among party elites, it’s a different story. Nine of the state’s 10 so-called super-delegates — elected and party officials permitted by Democratic Party rules to back the candidate of their choice at the convention, regardless of how their state voted — are supporting Clinton.

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Black Earth, who is one of those super-delegates, withheld support for Clinton until she became the presumptive nominee. Pocan said it’s important that national Democrats draft a party platform that reflects Sanders supporters’ views on free trade, the minimum wage and changing U.S. systems of campaign finance and criminal justice.

Pocan said he’s confident most Sanders supporters will warm to Clinton — in part, because of the choice they face in November.

“You can either support Hillary Clinton or Trump,” Pocan said. “If you really cared about the message of Bernie Sanders, it’s pretty obvious where you would wind up.”

Sanders delegates mull Clinton

Not everyone sees the choice in those terms.

John Stanley, a national convention delegate from DeForest, cited Clinton’s support for fracking — a type of hydraulic mining used to extract fossil fuels — and the death penalty in explaining why he “cannot, in all good conscience, vote for her.”

“I don’t see her being that much different than Donald Trump,” Stanley said.

The Democratic National Convention will be held July 25-28 in Philadelphia.

Other Sanders delegates are reserving judgment. Nate Timm, a Sanders delegate from Mazomanie, said he wants to see “how the Clinton campaign responds to the issues that Bernie cares about, and how the campaign responds to the Bernie supporters.”

Timm said many Sanders supporters are new to political activism. If the Clinton campaign and Democrats in general don’t welcome them into the process, they may not return, Timm said.

“It’s in the Clinton campaign’s best interest to be very respectful of Bernie Sanders supporters,” Timm said.

Heather Colburn, Clinton’s Wisconsin campaign director in 2008 when she lost to Barack Obama, said she feels the pain of Sanders supporters in 2016.

Colburn, a Wisconsin Democratic political consultant, is supporting Clinton again this year. She said Sanders supporters may need a little time and space to gain a broader perspective on what’s at stake in November.

“You just need time to mourn the loss,” Colburn said. “When you get over that, then you get it.”

Trump operation

thin so far

Trump faces some of the same challenges as Clinton in winning over party members who backed his opponents. Wisconsin was fertile ground for the #nevertrump movement and became the last state where he lost before clinching the nomination in early May.

Since then Trump hasn’t capitalized in Wisconsin on the head start he had over Clinton for the five weeks between when they clinched their respective nominations.

Republican strategist Bill McCoshen said Trump should have had more boots on the ground sooner. As a result, “there are discussions going on about whether this campaign can be salvaged.”

“He’s putting himself in a vulnerable position by not staffing up sooner,” McCoshen said.

Last week, Trump hired Pete Meachum as his state campaign director.

Meachum served as chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, who represents one of two congressional districts Trump won in the Wisconsin primary. Trump also has hired Vince Trovato, who placed fourth in a 2014 Republican Assembly primary in Waukesha County and served on the county GOP’s executive board.

Neither responded to interview requests.

Trump also has a disadvantage in facing negative push back from the state’s conservative talk radio hosts, who helped propel Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to victory in the April primary.

“The best he can hope for is them being neutral, but talk radio being neutral is not enough to win in this state,” McCoshen said. “You have to have them in your corner.”

The state Republican Party has touted having the strongest grassroots operation in the country as evidenced by the record turnout in the primary.

But since the primary Republican momentum in the state has stalled, McCoshen said. In order to reclaim that enthusiasm Trump has to stay on message, do his homework before speaking, not comment about every minor issue of the day and not offend so many voters.

“It’s an unorthodox campaign,” McCoshen added. “If the polls don’t change, Wisconsin won’t be a target on the presidential side.”

Trump supporter: Too early to read into polls

Jim Miller, a Republican National Convention delegate from the 7th Congressional District supporting Trump, said the campaign will be different than political operatives expect because Trump is an unorthodox candidate.

Miller said there have been requests coming in for large Trump signs that traditionally pop up along rural highways in presidential election years, but he said he’s not expecting the Trump campaign to provide any.

He suggested they might not be necessary because the real estate mogul and reality TV celebrity already has 100 percent name ID.

“Throughout the course of this process he’s been able to do some big things with very little money,” Miller said. “It’s way too early to say those polls are any indication.”

Joe Heim, a UW-La Crosse political science professor, said more important than yard signs is having an established ground game, and there has been a noticeable deficit on the Trump side so far in Wisconsin. That could be because some Republicans in the state are still resistant to Trump’s candidacy.

Even Duffy, a Trump convert, has given mixed signals in recent weeks, telling Politico he doesn’t know if he’ll attend the Republican National Convention, July 18-21, in Cleveland.

Heim said Trump has had a rough few weeks and reluctant Republicans are waiting to see if he better organizes his campaign.

With the convention occurring about a month earlier this year than in past presidential cycles, there is still plenty of time for Trump to catch up, Heim said.

“You have a strong Republican administration in Wisconsin with a strong get-out-the-vote organization,” Heim said. “They still have plenty of time to organize that type of thing.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that Clinton's campaign had five paid staff members in Wisconsin as of last month. The campaign did not provide an updated figure.


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