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Political campaign signs are seen at a distribution site for supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 17, 2020.

BING GUAN/Reuters

This is the land the Democrats forgot.

Forgot – despite a tradition of Wisconsin progressivism that, personified by its governor and senator Robert M. La Follette (1855-1925), transformed the state into a liberal “laboratory of democracy.” Forgot – and paid so little attention to motivating the urban vote that turnout in Milwaukee dropped by 41,000 votes between 2012 and 2016. Forgot – and took Wisconsin so cavalierly that their last nominee, Hillary Clinton, failed to drop in here once four years ago, permitting Donald Trump to prevail by 22,748 votes, which is a margin of 0.77 percentage points.

Forgot – until now, when Wisconsin is one of the principal swing states in next week’s election and has emerged as a bitter battleground between one candidate who draws on the state’s progressive past and another who draws on its less-understood adamantine conservative streak that produced red-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) and combative governor Scott Walker, who occupied the governor’s residence in Madison from 2011 to 2019.

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But Wisconsin is forgotten no longer. The Democrats are pouring money, advertisements and activists into Milwaukee, pledging they will restore turnout – especially among Blacks, who comprise 37.6 per cent of the city’s population – to its natural level. They are concentrating on smaller cities – student-heavy Madison, plus Green Bay, Eau Claire, La Crosse, Stevens Point and here in Wausau. And they are in courts fighting efforts to make voting more difficult. Mr. Trump – outgunned four-to-one in advertisements, according to the Wesleyan Media Project – heads back to the state on Tuesday to rally his base and keep Wisconsin in his column.

Former vice-president Joe Biden knows that the 2008 ticket he occupied with Barack Obama won five-sixths of the state’s counties, producing a 14-point victory. He is playing defense in northwest Wisconsin, which Mr. Trump carried by 84,136 votes despite Clinton sweeps in the three counties farthest from Milwaukee. But he hopes the presence of college-educated suburbanites in the suburban WOW counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington – an area Mr. Walker believes is “key” to the destiny of the state’s 10 electoral votes – will complement the Black voters just miles to the east. Mr. Biden needs that to protect himself against a surge of non-college-educated voters in the so-called "driftless area'' in southwest Wisconsin. Mr. Trump carried that region – which got its name because it never was reduced to a flat plain by glaciers – by only 6,830 votes.

This is a state that is experiencing one of the most dramatic surges of coronavirus cases in the country, but that didn’t prevent the President from mocking the virus hours before he landed in Wisconsin on Saturday by saying it was unjustifiably dominating the news, sarcastically chanting, “COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID,” and asserting that after election day “you won’t hear about COVID again.” On a day in which the state reported more than 3,000 new cases for the sixth day in a row, the President said the virus was “going away.”

In one of Mr. Biden’s visits here, the Democratic nominee said of the President, “Trump panicked,” adding, “The virus was too big for him.”

Mr. Trump visited violence-plagued Kenosha, an hour’s drive south of Milwaukee, after the August police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, and in the fortnight before election day planned three trips to the state, two within a four-day period. In his Saturday appearance in Waukesha, sometimes regarded as the most Republican suburban area in the country, he said that Mr. Biden was “against oil, guns and God.”

Wisconsin usually exports its politics – it championed direct primary elections to select party nominees, passed early legislation to break up business monopolies, and passed one of the first workmen’s compensation programs, all adopted or adapted elsewhere. But this time it is in part a net importer of politics. With the help of Washington-based activists affiliated with the Hub Project, a group of progressives called Opportunity Wisconsin sought out pro-Trump voters and worked to convert them. They don’t have to convert many – just a small swing away from Mr. Trump among his 2016 supporters could slip the state into the Biden column.

Indeed, a small swing could have big consequences. Margins of victory in Wisconsin have been less than one percentage point in three of the past five elections.

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The original Land That Time Forgot was a novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs that literary critics characterize as a fantasy. Much of the politics in this state reflect the resentments produced by the real lost world of manufacturing prosperity that is felt particularly acutely here.

“We are still living with the reality of the transformation from the Rust Belt days,” said John Savagian, a historian at Milwaukee’s Alverno College. “We tend to think of this election as if it is in a new context. But we are living with the anger, resentment and fear of the changes of the last 20 or 30 years. Trump benefited from that last time, and Biden is seeking to offer comfort for it this time.” On that axis, Wisconsin, and perhaps the White House, may turn next week.

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