As Milwaukee prepares for RNC, dueling messages appear along highways

Milwaukee motorists may notice an increase in billboards around the city

A billboard supporting former President Donald Trump stands off the highway in downtown Milwaukee, near the Fiserv Forum which will host the upcoming Republican National Convention, on July 3, 2024. Deneen Smith/WPR

Two weeks out from the Republican National Convention, Milwaukee motorists can prepare to see an influx of campaign messages over their heads.

Both the Republican and Democratic national campaign apparatuses have rented billboard space above Milwaukee’s highways. Democrats have focused their messaging on recent reported comments from President Donald Trump disparaging the Cream City.

In recent days, Republicans have responded with an assurance that Trump likes the town, which will host the nominating convention in mid-July.

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Billboards are an old-school strategy in an age of hyper-targeted political advertising, but they prime audiences to receive political messages, said Erika Franklin Fowler, a political scientist who researches political advertising at Wesleyan University.

“It makes sense that, leading up to a big event like this, both campaigns would try to capture the public’s attention about the event that’s coming up,” she said.

Given Wisconsin’s importance in national politics, its drivers are no strangers to political messaging along highways. But President Joe Biden’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee have made them key to their strategy, according to DNC executive director Sam Cornale.

“We’re trying to reach people in the most fractured media environment in the history of American politics. And we’re taking an incredibly innovative approach, one facet of which is over-indexing on billboards,” he said.

Former President Donald Trump says goodbye to his supporters at the end of his campaign rally Tuesday, June 18, 2024, in Racine, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

For the last month, that message in the Milwaukee area has been especially focused on Trump reportedly calling Milwaukee “a horrible city.” Immediately after those comments, made during a closed-door meeting with House Republicans, the DNC picked them up as a rallying cry, highlighting them on 10 billboards around Milwaukee highlighting those comments.

That campaign machine just launched a second round of billboards in advance of the Fourth of July holiday, primarily up and down the I-43 corridor.

“Happy July 4th, Milwaukee!” they read. “Unlike Donald Trump, Joe Biden loves your city.”  

The Trump campaign has said that those comments were addressing crime rates in the city. In a subsequent Fox News interview, Trump reiterated that idea.

“I love Milwaukee, I have great friends in Milwaukee,” Trump said. “But, as you know, the crime numbers are terrible. We have to be very careful.” 

The first part of that quote can now be seen on Republican-purchased billboards outside of the Fiserv Forum, where the RNC will take place July 15-19.

A spokesperson for the RNC did not respond to WPR’s request for comment.

Focusing the message on personality, rather than issues, makes sense in a race that pits two well-known candidates against each other for the second time, said Franklin Fowler, the political scientist.

President Joe Biden speaks Wednesday, March 13, 2024, at the Pieper-Hillside Boys & Girls Club in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

“The issues-based persuasion messages are just going to be harder, because there’s very little new information,” she said. “In just about any issue you pick, the public knows both of these candidates and knows where they sit.”

That hasn’t stopped Democrats from buying up billboards when Trump comes to town — highlighting his record on abortion when he visited Waukesha in May, for example, and on Foxconn when he was in Racine last month.

Veteran GOP strategist Liz Mair isn’t convinced that billboards of any variety motivate voters. But for an event like the RNC, where Trump and his allies will be driving around, it can be a tactic “to basically troll the other guy,” she said.  

“If you’re trying to do something like that, sure, by all means, integrate billboards you’re your strategy,” she said. “I think if you’re actually trying to move votes, billboards are not terribly effective.”