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Trump to visit Wisconsin during break in New York trial

Political experts say ongoing court cases not likely to hurt Trump's reelection bid and could actually help him

Former president Donald Trump speaks Tuesday, April 2, 2024, at Hyatt Regency in Green Bay, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

At a time in the election cycle when every moment counts for presidential candidates, the usual calculus has changed for former President Donald Trump. He’s spent most of his time lately attending his New York criminal trial, but he’ll hold a rally in battleground Wisconsin on Wednesday — a day he’s not required to be in court.

The criminal trial regarding Trump’s alleged “hush money” payments to adult film actor Stephanie Clifford, known as Stormy Daniels, began on April 15. It’s the first time in American history that a former president will be tried in a court of law.

Trump continues to campaign, albeit in a somewhat reduced capacity, and his upcoming rally in Waukesha next week is one example of how he must balance court and his reelection bid. The event is scheduled for Wednesday, a day New York Supreme Court Judge Juan Merchan uses to attend to other cases on his docket

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Trump’s more limited travel schedule comes as President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have made repeated visits to Wisconsin and a handful of other swing states that are likely to decide the election.

It’s an unprecedented scenario for presidential politics in America. But political science experts aren’t convinced the balancing act will seriously hurt Trump’s electoral prospects. 

J. Miles Coleman is an associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. He told WPR that it may seem counterintuitive, but the New York case and several others facing Trump could benefit him. 

“I think it makes the election a little more of a referendum on Biden, as opposed to a choice between two candidates,” Coleman said. “Now, that dynamic may change by the fall election as more people kind of tune in.”

While Trump seems to thrive on his political rallies and the required court appearances do constrict his time, Coleman said the former president won’t be “actively reminding some of those swing voters why they don’t like him.” 

As for why Trump is choosing to spend his weekday off from his criminal trial in Wisconsin, Coleman says it’s a no-brainer. 

“Wisconsin was the tipping point state in both 2016 and 2020,” Coleman said. “It was the state that got both Trump and Biden over the 270 electoral votes that they needed to be president. And to me, it’s still going to be one of, if not the key state this year.”

Carroll University Political Science Professor Lilly Goren agrees on Wisconsin’s importance. She said Trump’s choice to campaign in Waukesha is a sign he’s working to shore up Republican support in the conservative stronghold of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties, known by political insiders as the WOW counties.

Democrats have been making notable gains in the region since Trump became the standard-bearer of the Republican Party. During the 2022 midterm elections, in which Wisconsin voters reelected both Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, the Democratic share of the vote in Ozaukee County hit 44 percent. In 2014, it was 29 percent. Political strategists pointed part of the blame at Trump for turning off some suburban voters. 

“And so, it’s really important for a Republican candidate to try to push up the vote margin in those three counties in particular,” Goren said. “It has been a little bit weaker, but again, it’s still very conservative, still very Republican, but not as much as it had been in the past.” 

Goren said she thinks Johnson’s U.S. Senate race actually helped Trump win Wisconsin eight years ago, but he’s not on the ticket this year. 

As for Trump being stuck in court for at least part of this year’s campaign, Goren said it may not be that much of a hindrance because of the Republican’s campaign style. She said Trump usually holds rallies at or near airports, which allows him to fly in and fly home afterwards. 

“Given how he’s campaigned in the past, the kind of mode that he usually follows, his capacity to campaign, I don’t think, is that infringed upon,” Goren said.

In the latest Marquette University Law School poll, Trump and Biden remain locked in a tight race. Among registered voters in a five-candidate race, Trump received 41 percent compared to 40 percent for Biden. That’s well within the poll’s margin of error.