A look at the economic issues that could drive rural votes in Wisconsin

There are fewer than three weeks until the election but Wisconsin is longer away from knowing who wins.

In the race for the state, a big decider in 2016 was among rural votes. Donald Trump swung counties that went to Barack Obama, but some groups think Joe Biden has a chance to get them back.

“Rural voters are understanding right now that Trump has broken promises and that frustration is being felt in the surge in the Heartland that we are seeing for candidates, including Joe Biden,” said Patty Judge, a co-founder of the progressive political action committee Focus on Rural America.

She and the other co-founder, Jeff Link, started the PAC to engage with the rural working class and to build support for progressive economic policies.

Judge said those are the key issues driving rural votes.

“The one single driver in elections in rural America, probably in America, but at least in rural America, is a good job,” she said.

This is also an issue on which Trump thinks he can win. It’s been the focus of his re-election campaign, touting the growth in sectors like manufacturing.

“We created 15,000 Wisconsin manufacturing jobs,” he said at a campaign rally in Oshkosh.

In Wisconsin, manufacturing jobs did increase more than 15,000 before the pandemic, but now they are down, with nearly 10,000 fewer jobs in manufacturing than when Trump started.

The industry has also faced a tough blow when it comes to trade, according to Ian Coxhead, a professor of ag and applied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“It’s been pretty depressing for most trade economists to see the way the administration has gone about conducting trade policy,” he said.

He said the Trump administration’s approach to trade led to hits in manufacturing and agriculture revenues and profits, which deals like the USMCA and the Phase One agreement with China did help right.

“Both of which benefit U.S. producers somewhat, but I think again in big picture what they’re really doing is, particularly the USMCA, is giving back to U.S. producers and exporters they lost when the us walked away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership back in 2017.”

That’s the part he thinks will hurt long term, as countries make other plans or question the reliability of the U.S. as a partner.

“In terms of farm and corporate revenues and profits, we’re back in balance,” Coxhead said. “In terms of where we are relative to long-run trade relationships and prospects for trade growth, we’re not as well off as we were four years ago.”

Focus on Rural America thinks this and the pandemic could drive people in rural areas to vote for someone else. The organization’s poll of likely voters in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin shows Biden ahead.

But in 2016 Trump won counties in northern Wisconsin by big margins, and they stayed big margins for Scott Walker in 2018.

In three weeks’ time, Wisconsin will see if the trend continues for 2020.