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Trump Country: How a New York City billionaire won over rural voters in Wisconsin

Trump's victory can be explained in part by his popularity in rural areas, generally overlooked by political campaigns and home to much resentment against elites.
17 Nov 2016 – 12:58 PM EST
Dairy worker Dan Lanser: "We work hard. Trump works hard.” Crédito: Fernando Peinado

ELKHART LAKE, Wisc. – Jim Drake shows his greasy hands and apologies for being unable to extend a handshake to visitors of his dairy farm.

The 58-year-old farmer was one of the voters who helped Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin, one of the states the New York billionaire was least expected to win.

Wisconsin, part of the so-called Rust Belt, had not favored a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Trump flipped the state because of his popularity among rural voters. While Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won 53 percent of Wisconsin's rural vote in 2012, Trump won 63 percent.

Drake said he did not like either of the candidates, but could not stay home. His conscience told him that he had to prevent a Clinton victory at all costs.

“This a hunting community, and the right to carry arms is fundamental to us. That's what was worrying us so much about Clinton,” he said. “I've talked to a lot of the workers in this area who voted for the first time because of this issue.”

He added two other issues important to him: opposition to abortion and the damages caused by rising premiums for Obamacare.

For Drake, Trump's tough stance on illegal immigration was not that important. He needs the 30 Hispanic migrants who feed and milk his 2,000 cows in 12-hour shifts. Without them, he could not run his farm, the biggest in Sheboygan county.

His Hispanic business partner, Omar Guerrero, said that each and every cow in Wisconsin provides work to 500 people, because dairy farms are the motors for many other types of related businesses. He lamented, however, that many people in Wisconsin ignore the fact that there will be no milk without undocumented workers.

“Trump has opened a door that was closed,” said Guerrero.

In the Sheboygan area of Wisconsin, in towns that sometimes have less than 1,000 residents, other Hispanics complain that the scorn and insults against them have increased since Trump launched his campaign.

José, one of the workers on the WHICH farm, believes the problem is not worse than in other parts of the country. “There are good people and bad people everywhere,” he said.

But he and the six other dairy workers who share one house say they are not going out too much these days.

Rural resentment

Trump's electoral victory has sparked an intense discussion about the importance of racial resentment. Is it a rejection of diversity, or the result of economic troubles?

A third explanation was offered by Katherine Cramer, a University of Wisconsin Madison professor. After studying the concerns of rural Wisconsin communities for a year, she concluded that there is significant resentment toward the residents of the state's two largest cities, Milwaukee and Madison.

Rural residents believe that they do not receive the power, resources and respect they deserve, Cramer said. She added that this dynamic is also present at the national level, and explains the results of the Nov. 8 balloting.

“For people who were feeling ignored, disrespected and overlooked by the urban elite, the Trump campaign had a strong appeal,” Cramer wrote in a Washington Post column.

When Drake spoke about Clinton during the interview, it was clear that he agreed with the notion that the Democratic candidate is elitist.

“We don't live in a cave here. We know what's happening in the world. We know what she did in Benghazi. And I get emotional with that,” he said, trying to hold back tears. “But she allowed those four Americans to die. She is not here to help us.”

Dan Lanser, 61, a worker at a nearby dairy farm, said he admires the president-elect for his work ethic.

“We work hard. Trump works hard,” he said. “There are two ways to go through life. One is with effort, and the other is with shortcuts and corruption.”

Many Wisconsin residents recalled that while Clinton did not make a single visit to Wisconsin during the general campaign, Trump made six visits, several of them to places seldom visited by candidates.

The Democratic candidate relied on polls that gave her a comfortable margin throughout most of the campaign. Charlie Sykes, a conservative Wisconsin radio personality, has complained that Clinton lives in a bubble that separates her from the common man.

“She should have known that many people in Wisconsin were afraid that she would abolish the Second Amendment,” Sykes told Univision Noticias.

And that's how Trump, a New York City billionaire who grew up in a world far from Drake and Lanser, managed to persuade the two men to see him as a defender of this distressed and marginalized region.

Perhaps he too was able to present himself as a man marginalized by the “establishment,” a man in line with the resentments pointed out by Cramer.

Whatever the answer, Trump won the trust of Drake and others like him. “Trump came and promised us change, and Clinton did not,” Drake said.

Maye Primera and Ana María Rodríguez contributed to this article.