WAUSAU, Wis. — Mandy Bartels came to Donald Trump’s rally Saturday wearing a “Doctors for Trump” t-shirt. I told her I had been to a lot of Trump events but hadn’t seen one of those. “I made it myself,” Bartels, an emergency medicine specialist from Waupaca, said with a laugh.
I asked Bartels and several other women at the rally whether they were troubled by the controversy over Trump’s various statements recently on abortion. Bartels wasn’t. “They asked him a hypothetical question and he answered a hypothetical answer,” she said. “It doesn’t bother me at all.”
The same was true for Carolyn Meidl, of Hewitt. “He gave an honest answer,” Meidl said of Trump’s later-abandoned statement that if Roe v. Wade were overturned there should be “some form of punishment” for women who had illegal abortions. “I actually am pro-life, but what would you do?” Meidl told me. “I don’t know what I would feel a punishment would be. The man? The woman? The doctor who does it? I hope our country never has to go back and face that issue again.”
Carolyn’s friend Kathy Jones of Auburndale agreed. She noted that still other Trump supporters did, too; she had talked to them about it a few days earlier when they were in line to see Trump in Appleton. (They didn’t get in; the line was so long that officials stopped admitting people about 100 feet ahead of Kathy and Carolyn, who made sure they arrived in Wausau early enough to actually make it inside the rally.)
“It doesn’t affect my opinion at all,” said Kelly Fulcer, who with her husband Aaron drove three hours from Oak Creek, south of Milwaukee, to see Trump. “I’m not going to agree 100 percent with any candidate, and I disagree with him on the abortion stand,” Fulcer explained, noting that both she and her husband are pro-choice. “But at the same time I agree with him so strongly on the things that mean more to me than that — like staying the course on ISIS and his stand on the economy.”
I of course did not survey the whole crowd in Wausau, but no one told me the abortion controversy or any of Trump’s other problems in the last week had diminished their support for the Republican front-runner. Some analysts, from top Republicans to Saturday Night Live, have suggested that is because Trump supporters are so blindly devoted to him that they are unfazed even by overwhelming evidence that he is wrong, or grossly uninformed, or bigoted, or whatever. In reality, it seems that many of them made a decision early on that on the biggest issues, the ones that matter to them most — national greatness, the economy, American strength worldwide — Trump is right, and that’s more important than anything else.
“That’s pretty much all made-up crap as far as I’m concerned,” said Darrel Jones, Kathy’s husband, when I asked him about Trump’s troubles. “You know, they get him in the corner and make him say something that he probably shouldn’t have said — that doesn’t matter to me. I think it’s the economy and who’s going to stand up for us.”
For her part, Mandy Bartels told me she supported Trump for three reasons, none of which had anything to do with abortion or the recent controversies. “The first is that he’s a businessman,” Bartels said. “My father’s a businessman. I trust businessmen. Number two is his economic policy on trade deficits and currency manipulation. The third is, I’m tired of the way the country has been headed in the last 15 years. I think the Democrats and Republicans have not done anything for the middle class.”
The polls say Trump is behind by a pretty serious margin here in Wisconsin. The most recent surveys by CBS, by Fox Business, and by Marquette Law School have Trump trailing Ted Cruz by 6, 10, and 10 points respectively. But here in the central and western part of the state, Trump does better, which seemed clear from the Wausau event. It was held at something called the Central Wisconsin Convention & Expo Center, which was a big meeting space at one end of a long, horseshoe-shaped mall. The mall had an enclosed walkway running the length of its storefront side, and the line to see Trump snaked the full distance and a bit more.
Still, Wisconsin is a tough state for Trump. Cruz, either on his own merits or as the anti-Trump, is very strong among conservative Republicans in the more heavily populated southeastern part of the state. Cruz has Wisconsin’s formidable conservative talk radio stars on his side, as well as the state’s GOP power structure — Gov. Scott Walker, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, and more. Cruz scores much better than Trump among Republican voters who want to see the most conservative candidate win — and in Wisconsin, that’s a lot of voters.
For example, the new CBS poll asked Wisconsin GOP voters “If you had to choose one, would you say it is time for the U.S. to elect a president who is a) the most consistent conservative, b) the strongest leader, c) the most likely to shake up the political system, or d) the most experienced on policy issues.” The top response was strongest leader, with 36 percent, but in second place, with 29 percent, was consistent conservative, ahead of shake up the system, with 25 percent.
In a lot of other states, more Republican voters have wanted to shake up the system, which tends to favor Trump. In the same CBS poll for Pennsylvania, for example, 39 percent said strongest leader, while 29 percent said shake up the system, and 20 percent said most consistent conservative. That appears to be more welcoming territory for Trump.
At Trump’s Wausau event, it was probably fair to guess that nearly everyone would have chosen either strongest leader or shake up the system. And there weren’t a lot of GOP party loyalists, either. When I asked Darrel Jones and Glen Meidl, Carolyn’s husband, whether they were Republicans, there was a pause as both men considered the idea.
“Pretty much,” said Darrel.
“Yeah, I guess now I am,” said Glen, who added that he had voted for Democrats in the past. “I voted for Democrats before, but I vote for the man,” Meidl said.
It’s tempting for voters, when they attend a big rally like Trump’s event in Wausau, to assume that the crowd size represents all voters and that the candidate is getting similar support everywhere and is therefore headed to victory. Trump’s supporters know that’s not the case elsewhere in the state, but they wanted to show that he is strong where they live.
“There’s a lot of support in this area of Wisconsin,” Carolyn Meidl told me. “I know Milwaukee’s a little different, but up here, there’s huge support. Everybody we talk to, everywhere we go people are supporting him.”
“We need change,” said Kathy Jones.
“And women do support Trump,” Carolyn added. “Look around.”