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Where the real battle for votes lies

Peter Cohn, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- Call it President Donald Trump's Guadalcanal: Like the tiny island U.S. Marines invaded in World War II to break Japan's Asia-Pacific chokehold, little Juneau County, Wis., is where Trump needs to halt the Democrats' advance.

The struggle for 2020 hearts and minds is more than a referendum on the tweeter-in-chief's behavior -- it's about the "future of work." For counties such as Juneau and others in battleground states, a thriving middle class means a restored American manufacturing base.

That's something politicians of both parties have paid lip service to for years. But a trash-talking real estate mogul and reality TV star from Queens has become the real deal for many.

"The Trump trade agenda has given us the largest increase in manufacturing employment last year in 20 years," says Jeff Ferry, chief economist for the Coalition for a Prosperous America, a group of domestic manufacturers, farmers and labor unions. (GOP free traders would argue the 2017 tax cuts were more responsible, but if Trump gets the credit, so be it.)

On its face, Juneau County is prime Trump country: older, poorer, whiter, less educated and more rural, male and manufacturing-heavy than the national average. In 2016, Trump clobbered Hillary Clinton there by 26 points -- a 3,057-vote win that contributed about 13% of his 0.8-point overall margin in the Badger State.

The blowout was striking since Juneau voters backed Barack Obama twice; in fact no candidate since 1960 has won the presidency without winning this bellwether county. It's possible to win statewide without Juneau, but outperforming Clinton helps: In their 2018 victories, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers lost Juneau by 1,442 votes, and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, also a Democrat, lost there by 771.

 

The manufacturing revival Trump promised has cooled this year after torrid growth in 2018, when U.S. manufacturers added 264,000 jobs. That's slowed to 76,000 over the past 12 months; updated state figures haven't been released, but Wisconsin was down 7,700 manufacturing jobs year-over-year through October.

Purchasing manager surveys released the week of Dec. 2 had mixed findings, but respondents agreed trade uncertainty was clouding the outlook. In addition, Wisconsin dairy farmers are hurting because of lost Chinese export sales.

Ferry argues that exchange rate policies in China and elsewhere have pushed down their currencies against the U.S. dollar, hurting American manufacturers abroad while lowering import costs. That, along with lower oil prices, has fed the manufacturing slowdown this year -- not the trade war, he says. Taxing foreign capital inflows to the U.S., as proposed by Baldwin and Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, could weaken the dollar and help domestic manufacturers and farmers, Ferry says.

Ferry adds that the 2017 tax law didn't do enough to rein in multinationals' offshore profit shifting, leaving domestic manufacturers at a disadvantage. Fix that and the Treasury could be flush with cash to cut tax rates, increase infrastructure spending and boost demand for U.S.-made iron and steel.

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