(CNN) — Joe Biden is making a bid to win back white working-class voters around smaller cities and towns in the Upper Midwest from President Donald Trump, targeting them with a cultural and economic pitch that was on display Monday in Wisconsin.
A trip to Green Bay — a leading example of the places Democrats have seen their standing erode over the last decade — offered a window into the Biden campaign’s belief that he brings a unique appeal to places with Democratic and labor-heavy roots that rejected President Barack Obama in 2012 and then, by even larger margins, Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Biden in recent days has woven into his stump speech a contrast between his family’s working-class roots in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and lack of an Ivy League degree, and Trump’s gilded New York life — arguing that his policies would benefit the middle class while Trump’s tax cuts and other economic policies have mainly aided the wealthy.
“I’ve dealt with guys like Trump my whole life,” he said Monday. “Guys who think they’re better than you. Guys who inherit everything they’ve ever gotten in their life and squander it. Guys who stretch and squeeze and stiff electricians and plumbers and contractors working on their hotels and casinos and golf courses to put more bucks in their pocket.”
Biden largely ignored major national stories — including the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and questions about whether Republicans will fill her seat before the presidential election is decided and, if Biden wins, before he is inaugurated. Instead, he kept his message focused on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the economy, while making the case that he can better relate to the struggles of the working class.
“I say it’s about time that a state school president sat in the Oval Office. Because you know what? If I’m sitting there, you’re going to be sitting there too,” said Biden, who earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Delaware and his law degree from Syracuse University.
Beyond Biden’s core coalition of women, people of color and younger voters, polls have shown he is outperforming Clinton and, in many cases, Obama’s 2012 reelection effort with suburban voters, who have swung heavily to Democrats in the Trump era, older voters, who have favored Republicans in recent presidential elections but now favor Biden, and independents.
Another key group Biden is targeting: disaffected white working-class voters — the people with whom Trump needs to rack up an enormous margin of victory to win the election, and where Biden just needs to chip into Trump’s advantage.
Those voters are crucial in the industrial Midwest, as Biden seeks to improve Democrats’ performance in smaller cities and towns in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and western Pennsylvania.
A CNN poll of Wisconsin conducted September 9-13 found Biden with a 10-percentage-point lead among likely voters in the state, with 52% backing the former vice president and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, and 42% supporting Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. The poll found Biden trailing Trump by just 8 points, 43% to Trump’s 51%, among white non-college graduates.
The Biden campaign’s particular focus is white women without college degrees — a group an adviser said it believes is a more realistic target than white men without college degrees, who make up the core of Trump’s political support.
“It’s the non-college women who have been very ‘swingy’ in Wisconsin, and I think that we actually are doing really well with those folks,” said a Biden campaign adviser in Wisconsin.
In an early September videoconference with reporters, Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon and chief strategist Mike Donilon ticked through the campaign’s strategic imperatives in swing states. On the bulleted list for Wisconsin, in addition to get-out-the-vote efforts: “persuade rural voters” and “lean into the gender gap.”
Its map of target-rich areas included Milwaukee and the college city Madison. It also included the counties that are home to a series of smaller cities where Democrats’ performance has slipped, and in some cases collapsed, in recent presidential elections — Green Bay, Appleton and Oshkosh in the state’s northeastern portion, as well as Wausau in central Wisconsin and Eau Claire and La Crosse in western Wisconsin.
The presentation underscored the Biden campaign’s belief that the former vice president can bring voters in areas with Democratic roots and heavy labor union presences back into the party’s fold.
Barack Obama won Brown County, the home of Green Bay, in 2008. But he lost it narrowly in 2012 — and then in 2016, Trump defeated Clinton there by 9 percentage points. Neighboring Outagamie County, the home of Appleton, shifted from a 12-point Obama win in 2008 to a 13-point Trump victory in 2016. And just south in Winnebago County, home of Oshkosh, a 12-point Obama 2008 win slipped into a 7-point Trump 2016 victory.
Biden “has experienced some of these things that should speak to the poor folks who have lost businesses during the pandemic and all that’s going on right now,” said Mike Holmgren, the former longtime head coach of the Green Bay Packers and a Biden supporter, who said he has always voted but never before actively campaigned for a candidate in a presidential election.
“That’s why I feel very strongly about this election,” he said. “I think it’s the most important election of my lifetime.”
In recent weeks, Biden has tailored his message to appeal to those voters. He has touted stimulus plans that would inject hundreds of billions of dollars into manufacturing and a “Buy America” platform that would impose tax penalties on companies that send production of goods that are sold in the United States overseas.
Outside Green Bay on Monday, he also warned that Trump’s push to cut payroll taxes would gut funding for Social Security.
Last Friday in Minnesota, Biden told reporters he believes he can do well with white working-class voters, and specifically pointed to blue-collar women as winnable. He said Democrats must “focus on the needs of everyone” to improve their performance with white working-class voters, “which we don’t spend enough time doing.”
Ben Delie, 36, a union utility worker in Green Bay schools and a father of three, said he was hit hard when he was off work for two months, while his wife lost her part-time job for four months in the early throes of the pandemic. He said he does not believe that the President represents his interests.
“I don’t understand why the middle class and lower-class people support a president like Donald Trump and would vote for him again,” Delie said.
A lifelong Democrat who voted for Obama, he said he is concerned about the growing political divide in the country and believes the President is to blame.
“It’s not the 1-percenters,” he said. “It’s the ones that got a house with kids in it, trying to do the grind every day.” He paused before adding, “This needs to change because this political divide is just terrible right now.”
Sue Conard, a retired public health nurse in La Crosse, echoed Delie’s sentiment.
“Donald Trump can’t relate to middle-class, working people,” she said. “Here in Wisconsin, I know that we’ve got people that are really listening what (Biden) is saying because he understands. He’s got integrity. He’s got empathy for the working class.”