But in a ward that went Republican in 2016 by a single vote, it’s their out-of-work neighbor, a restaurant server with three children at home because of the pandemic, who stands out. She will vote differently than she did in 2016 — this time, for the Democrat.
Such is the political mood in Ward 25A, where 251 voters and the choices they’re making for president could help determine another razor-thin victory in a state that is likely to be crucial to the outcome. As in thousands of other wards across Wisconsin, a vote shifting this way, a vote shifting that way, could matter enormously.
Oshkosh is a political hot spot, a city of 67,000 in one of the key counties that twice backed Barack Obama and then helped elect Trump. It’s also a coronavirus hot spot, a place with rapidly increasing numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, and health department updates warning of a “sustained uncontrolled spread that is threatening all aspects of community life.”
“As Oshkosh goes, so goes Wisconsin, I think,” said David Siemers, a political science professor at the local University of Wisconsin campus. He expects the outcome to turn on an age-old question in politics: “Are people doing better?” And like local officials, who report long lines and strong turnout in early voting, he thinks the answer will hinge on the pandemic.
Ward 25A is a neighborhood divided in much the way Wisconsin is divided. Its neat, unassuming houses ease the transition from the turrets and towers of the historic Queen Anne homes built downtown by lumber fortunes to the squat industrial facilities on the northern edge of Oshkosh.
David and Mary Niemuth, who have lived here since the 1970s, have been isolating for months because of the virus.
“I just feel like we are surrounded, like Davy Crockett at the Alamo,” David Niemuth, 75, said Saturday as he and his wife raked, a pile of dry maple leaves growing steadily at the curb.
Niemuth, who had a career in computer operations at the nearby university, thinks Republicans in the state and nationally have mishandled the pandemic. He and his wife call Trump arrogant and belligerent and say that they were open to a Democratic candidate. Yet former vice president Joe Biden did not inspire their confidence.
“We said it’s a lunatic versus an old man,” said Mary Niemuth, 70, a retired teacher.
Not until they were filling out their mail-in ballots did they settle on their choice. “It was a tough one,” he said. Both ultimately voted for Trump.
Katherine Cramer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said many voters are probably holding their noses as they cast ballots.
“There are many Republicans in that part of the state who are telling themselves, ‘I am not voting for Trump, I am voting for Supreme Court seats, the unborn, the Second Amendment,’ that kind of thing,” said Cramer, who wrote a 2016 book on rural Wisconsin titled, “The Politics of Resentment.”
A few blocks from the Niemuths, Antonio Balboa, 42, was rummaging through his garage for something to pump up a football so he could play catch with his son. He had the radio on and heard a clip from a Trump campaign event where the president insisted that the United States was “rounding the turn” on the pandemic.
“There he was again, downplaying covid,” Balboa said, shaking his head.
The virus does not seem to be growing any less threatening to this father of five. In July, a relative fell ill, forcing Balboa to quarantine and miss 10 days of work from his maintenance job at a property management company. That meant two weeks with no salary. “We live paycheck to paycheck.”
Trump does not look out for families like his, he says, and cares more about tax breaks for corporations. Balboa, who identifies as Mexican American, also disagrees with the president’s immigration policies and finds him divisive, fanning political animosity.
“I don’t hate Trump supporters, but I have never been this upset, I have never been this political,” he said. In Ward 25A, his is one vote that will stay on the Democratic side.
The president’s support appears to remain strong in the ward. Yard signs for Trump, who visited Oshkosh in August for a rally at the airport, outnumber those for Biden.
Yet people are shifting, some more enthusiastically than others.
Lydia Comstock, who in 2016 voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson for president, had been doing well enough pre-pandemic. She was a server at ZaRonis, an Italian restaurant in town, where she could count on making $100 to $200 a night in tips.
Then the coronavirus closed the dining room, and she went to taking phone orders for just $7 an hour. Then schools closed, and Comstock, 29, had to supervise her young children during their virtual school day. She no longer could work the restaurant shifts.
She and her husband, a prepress graphic designer, have slashed expenses. The family stopped ordering takeout food as a way to support local businesses. “We didn’t want to cut that back but had to,” said Brent Comstock, 30.
Neither likes Trump, but they don’t like Biden, either. They recently slipped their ballots into a drop box at City Hall. He supported Libertarian Jo Jorgensen. Her motivation was strictly to defeat Trump.
“I voted for Biden,” she said. “But I didn’t like it.”
Amid all the political signs and rhetoric, a few people have felt something awakened.
Edie Richoz, 70, and her son, Steve Wirsing, 35, last voted for a presidential candidate in 2008, inspired by Obama’s message of change. By 2016, they felt discouraged and disengaged, and neither Trump nor Clinton drew their support. “I couldn’t decide between the worse of the two evils,” Richoz said.
These days, both are newly motivated, especially by what they consider Republicans’ botched handling of the pandemic. The president’s attack on the Affordable Care Act also ranks high because of family health concerns. “All he has been doing is trying to demolish it,” Wirsing said.
Last week, Richoz cast her first ballot in a presidential election in 12 years for Biden. Her son did the same on Tuesday.