(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Three crucial states that swung the 2016 election to Donald Trump could also be the hinge that dislodges him in 2020. Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin share many characteristics, from Big Ten football programs to post-industrial small-town desolation. But in this year’s election they share another attribute: Democratic governors who have worked to mitigate the coronavirus contagion in the face of opposition from Trump and sometimes hysterical attacks from Republican state legislators.
It seems significant, then, that in this era of extreme polarization, each of those governors remains consistently more popular in their respective states than the president.
The most popular among the three is Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, whose approval/disapproval rating among likely voters is 59% to 38% in a September poll. Whitmer has faced pointed attacks from Trump, right-wing militants storming the state capitol and a Republican-dominated legislature that has aggressively sought to undermine her authority, policies and political standing. She has emerged from such battles more popular than she was at the beginning of this year — and far more popular than Trump, whose approval/disapproval numbers in the same poll were 44%/53%.
“There is a general feel among voters that Michigan has done better than other states,” Whitmer pollster John Anzalone said in an email. “She took corona seriously, listened to medical experts and implemented a plan — all things voters don’t think Trump did.”
In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf has a 55% approval rating and a 38% disapproval rating, according to a poll taken in late August and early September. Trump is at 43%/54%. The overall approval rating of each man matches that of his approval rating on his response to coronavirus.
Unlike Whitmer, Wolf has not been a special target of Trump attacks, perhaps because Trump tends to direct an extra dose of venom toward women. But Wolf has faced similar resistance in his state to the implementation of coronavirus protocols of business closings, masks and distancing. And some Pennsylvania legislators are every bit as committed to lethal denial as their Michigan brethren. In late July, a Republican state representative released a lengthy statement on his official stationary denouncing “hateful and intolerant comments directed towards the unmasked community in Pennsylvania.”
Democratic consultant Doc Sweitzer, who has a long history in Pennsylvania politics, echoes Whitmer pollster Anzalone. “In many ways this about adult leadership,” he said by email. “Voters believe that Trump is childish. (They say that in focus groups.)”
Yet it’s also more complicated than that. Nationwide, Trump is generally rated more positively on the economy than on other measures, including his response to the virus. Remarkably, 52% of likely Pennsylvania voters polled approved of Trump’s handling of the economy, with 46% disapproving, suggesting that a sizable share of voters may not connect Trump’s coronavirus failures to imperiled economic activity and employment. A plurality of Pennsylvania voters, 29%, chose the economy as the most important issue on a list, above coronavirus (16%), “law and order” (15%) or racial inequality (13%).
Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers is the least popular of the three governors. That might say something about Evers’ soft style of politics in a hard, ugly era. Or it could be a signal that Wisconsin, which has the highest share of non-Hispanic Whites, 81%, of the three states, remains more committed to Trumpism than its swingy neighbors. According to a poll taken in late August and early September, Evers has a 51% job approval rating, with 43% disapproving. Trump’s numbers are 44% and 54%.
Wisconsin has been roiled by protests in Kenosha, following a police shooting, and the subsequent killing of two protesters and wounding of another by a 17-year-old Trump supporter from Illinois. The University of Wisconsin flagship campus in Madison is struggling to contain the spread of Covid-19. And the state has been a partisan powder keg since former Governor Scott Walker preceded Trump in dividing the electorate into supporters who deserve all the benefits of the state and opponents who must be destroyed.
In Wisconsin, Trump maintains a relatively robust 52%/44% approval/disapproval rating on his handling of the economy. Wisconsin, like Michigan and Pennsylvania, is not an economic Valhalla. But voters who mistrust the president on the coronavirus nevertheless trust his handling of the economy, however erratic and corrupt.
The contrasting approval/disapproval ratings of the Democratic governors who lead these battleground states, and of the president who likely must win at least one of them to remain in office, is yet another sign that Trump’s campaign is in trouble. Those governors pursue policies, have management styles and exhibit values that contrast directly with Trump’s, while reinforcing Joe Biden’s. As the ticket-splitting voter becomes a figure of nostalgia, the Whitmer-Trump voter, or Wolf-Trump supporter, takes on an increasingly spectral air.
Still, in an era in which truth is under siege and reality is malleable, Trump cannot be counted out. He still succeeds at fooling some of the people some of the time. And as the fans at his Corona superspreader event in Nevada this week attest, some would rather court death in Trump’s make-believe than live in Biden’s reality.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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