You could be forgiven for not seeing Democratic presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden starting to sweat in Wisconsin.
First, there was the summer of nonstop crises for President Trump, then the violence in Kenosha that the media assured us would focus suburban women more on race relations than burning buildings, then the string of polls suggesting the president is losing every imaginable key voter in the state.
But Mr. Biden is sweating.
That’s because Wisconsin is not just the most coveted battleground — central to Republicans’ strategy and chosen site for the Democratic National Convention after Mr. Trump’s 2016 upset — but also because it’s more poised to tighten more than any other swing state. The Supreme Court vacancy that is shaking up the race is but one of several reasons, many of them structural, that the current coastal view of Wisconsin misses the facts on the ground. Again.
“It very much is still winnable for Trump down the stretch, and trending in the right direction,” said Matt Batzel, Wisconsin-based national executive director of the conservative group American Majority Action, which is doing voter outreach, including door-knocking and text campaigns, in crucial areas.
The latest Real Clear Politics polling average puts Mr. Biden up nearly 7 points in Wisconsin, mirroring his nationwide lead. That casts the state as further out of reach than other battlegrounds, with Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, North Carolina and Arizona showing him leading anywhere from 1 to 5 points.
The national narrative obediently follows, but a deeper look at available data and electoral efforts in Wisconsin paint a different picture.
In Wisconsin, like many battlegrounds, there are large urban centers with Democrats who turn out in droves, surrounded by vast Republican-dominated rural areas and small towns, where Trump signs punctuate roads already lined with American flags. The suburbs are the core battleground. But there are crucial differences.
First and foremost, Wisconsin is mathematically America’s most evenly divided state. Election results from 2012 to 2018 show Wisconsin favoring Republicans by 0.05%, according to an analysis by Inside Elections, the narrowest margin. By this measure, Michigan favors Democrats by 3.7% and Pennsylvania favors them by 6.6%, while Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona — red-leaning states where Mr. Biden is overperforming — favor Republicans by between 1% and 5%.
All this means Wisconsin tends to be tighter than polls currently suggest, to a greater degree than any of the battlegrounds polling right now.
On top of the math showing Mr. Trump can make up ground, Wisconsin’s two major in-state polls — which are more credible indicators than national polls — offer him bright spots along the path.
Both the Marquette University Law School and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Elections Research Center polls showed Mr. Trump moving within the margin of error in September, with just a 4-point lead for Mr. Biden among likely voters. That’s the tightest Marquette result since May and a 4-point improvement for the president in the University of Wisconsin poll since August — a period in which he also narrowed Mr. Biden’s lead among independents in the UW poll.
Then there is the opportunity to win back skeptical voters.
To be sure, Mr. Trump faces challenges in the suburbs. But in Wisconsin, suburbs like those in the famous “WOW” counties (Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington) consistently vote more conservative than in other key states. And the issue set among voters — favoring the president on the economy, favoring Democrats on COVID-19, and an evolving mix of sentiments on race relations — have Republicans feeling more bullish than over the summer.
Marquette pollster Charles Franklin sees the race as largely steady, albeit tightening slightly, and agrees the WOW counties are more fertile ground for the conservative message. Regaining ground there means blue-collar families — who the president has a track record of winning over — as well as educated suburbanites and other soft Republicans who like his positions, but not his style. This is where campaigns and activists say the Kenosha riots helped drive the Republican message on not only law and order, but also on prosperity in communities.
It’s also where a woman who is a Catholic, pro-life Supreme Court nominee can help, too.
These are some of the reasons you’ve seen Mr. Biden come to Wisconsin twice in the past month after steadfastly staying away during COVID-19 (and why Mr. Trump has been here five times this year). They’re also some of the reasons the national political class consistently has been surprised by Wisconsin upsets for governor, Senate and Supreme Court.
Who will win depends upon the message voters hear more clearly — a path toward prosperous, safe communities from Republicans or the ruins of COVID-19 catastrophe from Democrats.
But barring a currently invisible voter realignment, one thing is for sure: Wisconsin will not be going quietly.
• Brian Reisinger is a writer and conservative operative who previously served as spokesman and adviser to Sen. Ron Johnson and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, as well as Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. He currently serves as president and chief operating officer of Platform Communications, a Midwestern-based strategic communications firm. He grew up on a dairy farm in southern Wisconsin.