WAUSAU, Wis. — Something told the wild geese it was time to go.
The poet Rachel Field, whose poem set out that immutable rule of the seasons, was right, as the poets we read as children many decades ago often were. For there, up in the leaden skies, was the telltale "V" of birds in flight. Her premonition ("something whispered 'frost'") was redeemed, too; here in swing-state Wisconsin, the frost on the "sagging orchards" that had "steamed with amber spice" sparkled in the early morning sun. And a day later, true to her prediction, "though the fields lay golden, something whispered, 'snow,'" — and soon the rural roads shone in a confectioners'-sugar white.
The change in season came with a rush here politically as well.
The last days of the 2020 campaign have been a blur — of candidate visits, of poll results, of stuffed mailboxes, of advertisements. The two campaigns have spent $120.1 million in advertising since the party conventions, with a $33.7 million advantage to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Ordinarily, that would dominate the conversation, along with the Green Bay Packers' strong NFL start and maybe a debate about the best recipe for deep-fried cheese curd (2 cups buttermilk, 2 cups lager beer ...). Not this year. The presidential campaign is being conducted amid a deadly coronavirus spike that, along with the targeting of both parties, has set Wisconsin apart; at one point in the last week, more than half of the nation's top 15 cities, as ranked by virus cases per capita, were in Wisconsin.
This is a campaign steeped in symbolism — and in overtones of the past. The presidential contest is a proxy for a deeper fight here. On one side is the progressivism of Robert "Fighting Bob" LaFollette, a governor, senator and Progressive Party presidential candidate whose notions of political and labor reform spilled beyond Wisconsin's borders. On the other is the outlook of former House Speaker Paul Ryan, who personified the resurgence of Ayn Rand-style conservatism in Washington, and of Gov. Scott Walker, who left the Madison statehouse last year but sowed a new, muscular conservatism in the fecund fields of Wisconsin.
And one other element of the past looms large.
Four years ago, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — perhaps responding to favorable poll soundings, perhaps overconfident, perhaps just in oversight — did not campaign in Wisconsin. Trump came here six times. For Wisconsin voters, the Clinton sin of omission stung, though a later study published by University of Dayton political scientist Christopher J. Devine in the The Forum, a scholarly journal of contemporary politics, concluded that it was "unclear" whether Clinton "would have gained votes, or even won, in Wisconsin had she campaigned in that state."
No matter. The visits that Clinton didn't make have taken on a folklore all their own, with Trump taking on something of the aura of the "ambitious guest," the title of one of the most beloved "twice-told tales" by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Biden, determined not to make Wisconsin a twice-told tale, has set down here several times.
There are very few undecided voters here — the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison puts the figure at 3 percentage points — but many uncertainties:
Will the police shooting of Jacob Blake and the subsequent civic unrest in Kenosha add urgency to the Biden campaign or fortify the voters who respond to Trump's law-and-order entreaties? What will be the effect of early in-person voting, which began Oct. 20 and which, in one of the ironies of the season, has produced long lines — though one of the rationales was to minimize the dangers of spreading the virus in crowded polling places. What was the yield of the efforts of the advocacy group Opportunity Wisconsin, which set out to convert Trump voters to the Biden camp?
And this: Will Black voters who did not rally to the Clinton campaign, especially in Milwaukee, flood the polls for Biden? Turnout in Milwaukee, where Blacks compose 37.6% of the population, fell by about 41,000 votes between 2012, the last time Barack Obama was on the ballot, and 2016. That may be the decisive factor in a state that Trump won by 22,748 votes — about half the number of the people who did not vote in the state's largest city.
Beyond Milwaukee, much of the focus is on the three WOW counties — Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington — that sit outside Milwaukee and have a history of Republican affiliation but are populated by the college-educated suburban women who are part of Biden's base. Before Trump visited there last week — at the height of the virus spike, with new records of infections being set daily — Biden released a statement pointing out the death of 47 Wisconsin virus victims in a single horrific day, arguing that "the sad truth is that it didn't have to be this bad." Trump hours later told supporters in Waukesha, which he won by 59% in 2016, that the country was "rounding the corner" on the virus.
The two men will continue to debate that, and much else.
Here, the contours of the battle have been laid in recent years. The Democrats are struggling to hang onto the remnants of the New Deal coalition, frayed as manufacturing jobs drifted away. The Republicans have supported initiatives such as the FoxConn project, which Trump and Gov. Walker prominently backed to bring high-tech jobs to southwestern Wisconsin. Though it won a contract to build virus-related respirators, FoxConn hasn't remotely redeemed the Trump-Walker hopes, though it stands today as a symbol of Republican efforts to woo the non-college-educated workers who have been displaced in the modern economy.
"This has been their electoral base for some time now, especially as union jobs have fled the state," said John Savagian, an historian at Milwaukee's Alverno College.
Though it was 18 degrees in white-crusted Eau Claire the other day, politics in Wisconsin remain white-hot. Both candidates likely will touch down in the state in the last few days of the campaign, for, as Field, who died in 1945, wrote, presciently, "Something told the wild geese/It was time to fly,/Summer sun was on their wings,/Winter in their cry."
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.