By Tom Still
MADISON – The secret to Donald Trump’s early success in the presidential campaign has been his ability to connect with voters who believe someone has already taken something from them … or soon will conspire to do so.
Whether the issue is Social Security, Medicare, immigration or the global economy, Trump speaks the language of the disaffected, which is no small feat for a wealthy real-estate developer who was born into privilege.
Many may respect Trump’s ability to tap the frustrations of voters who feel the American Dream no longer hovers over their heads, but it’s frustrating to see that discontent fanned by one-liners and statements almost totally unsupported by fact.
Unfortunately, that’s the essence of Trump’s presidential primary run in Wisconsin.
Trump’s dislike for Gov. Scott Walker, which began when Walker was still on the presidential trail, has evolved into attacks on the Wisconsin economy itself. While that may not surprise or even disappoint Walker’s critics, it reflects unfairly on a state that has weathered recession and political turmoil at home.
If you’re a voter following the Wisconsin primary from afar, you might conclude Wisconsin is a debt-ridden state filled with impoverished, unmotivated people who can’t find jobs. While the state economy is far from perfect, some Trump-isms simply aren’t correct.
Consider Trump’s assertion that Wisconsin’s total state debt it $45 billion. When PolitiFact checked that claim, the actual number was $14.1 billion – a figure that includes all general obligation bonds, road bonds and short-term loans made by the state. That number comes from the respected, bipartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which is Wisconsin’s equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office.
The $14.1 billion state debt figure is up about $860 million, or 6.5 percent, from the $13.2 billion inherited in December 2010 by Walker before he took office. If Trump wants to disparage states for their debt, just look at few miles south to Illinois, which has one of the nation’s largest per-capita debt loads and an unfunded pension liability to match. Wisconsin’s state pension system, on the other hand, is one of the nation’s healthiest.
Trump also said Wisconsin has an effective unemployment rate of 20 percent, another claim promptly discredited by PolitiFact.
The state’s ordinary or “U-3” unemployment was 4.6 percent in February, slightly less than the U.S. average of 4.9 percent. The U-3 rate is one of six calculated by the U.S. Labor Department, with the U-6 rate including people who are unemployed and “marginally attached workers.” Those are workers who are not in the labor force but available for work, as well as people who work part-time and who want to work full-time.
The U-6 rate is calculated once a year. Wisconsin’s U-6 rate for 2015 was 8.3 percent – a far cry from Trump’s 20 percent claim.
At rallies and public appearances, Trump has drawn cheers when he’s ripped Walker, whose approval ratings have been stuck around 40 percent. That probably doesn’t disappoint Democrats and it’s consistent with the “stick it to The Man” theme of his campaign. However, when it’s based on half-truths or less, the enduring brand damage is not done to Walker but to the state itself.
In truth, Wisconsin is a state that has lost manufacturing jobs over time – about 140,000 since the peak of 600,000 jobs in March 2000 – but it remains one of the nation’s top three states in manufacturing jobs per capita. It is also one of the nation’s most productive agricultural states, home to a thriving insurance and financial services cluster, and it’s increasingly a state with a diverse technology footprint. Information technology and engineering jobs in Wisconsin grew by 4.1 percent in 2015, according to the latest Cyberstates survey.
Real problems must be addressed, of course. Some rural communities feel left out of the economic picture and some urban neighborhoods seem trapped in poverty. Those aren’t issues unique to Wisconsin, however, and presidential candidates would do far better to propose solutions than prey on the fears of those who deserve better.