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The red state no one saw coming

Mike Voss of West Bend high-fived Jim Geldreich as they watched Wisconsin called for Donald Trump.
Mike Voss of West Bend high-fived Jim Geldreich as they watched Wisconsin called for Donald Trump.John Ehlke/The West Bend Daily News via AP

MENOMONEE FALLS, Wis. — Dawn Damico had never voted in a presidential election before, never felt sufficiently drawn to a candidate to pledge her political support. Until Tuesday.

The 52-year-old owner of a chocolate shop and grandmother of six said she voted for Donald Trump, helping push a pivotal and traditionally Democratic state into the Republican column and deliver an astounding victory for the GOP nominee.

“Because I think he will be doing different things than the rest of them,” Damico said. “I’m a small-business owner and I’m tired of all the big people complaining about this and that. Let’s see how they would live doing what we do.”

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Most of the pre-election forecasts did not see voters like Damico coming. And neither, it would seem, did Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Clinton herself never campaigned here during the general election, and Trump deluged the airwaves with television advertising, which may have helped him secure the victory margin of less than 30,000 votes, state political analysts said. And, according to the Wisconsin State Journal, Trump made at least five visits to the state in the final three months of the campaign.

In this state dotted with silos, dairy farms, and Green Bay Packers memorabilia, analysts point to several factors that helped turn Wisconsin from blue to red: the middle-class anxiety felt across the Rust Belt, low enthusiasm among usually reliable Democrats, and the years-long trend line toward electing Republicans in state.

Trump carried the state by 1 percentage point, the third-narrowest margin in the country behind New Hampshire, which voted narrowly for Clinton, and Michigan, which also switched from blue to red. It was a remarkable turnaround for Wisconsin, which was almost universally forecast as a Clinton state by pollsters and strategists who missed an undercurrent of Trump support.

“He speaks for the parts of the country that everybody else kind of forgot,” said a 57-year-old landscaper at a bar in Menomonee Falls, who asked not to be named. “I don’t agree with everything he does or says or the people who have lined up with him, but it’s nice to know that someone will not just let this whole thing go away.”

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Like the country itself, Wisconsin’s map is a sea of red with only a few small pockets of blue, in the upper northwest near Lake Superior and centered around Milwaukee and Madison in the south. In Menomonee Falls, northwest of Milwaukee, Trump beat Clinton by nearly 4,400 votes out of more than 21,000 cast. In Waukesha County, home to Menomonee Falls, 62 percent voted for Trump.

Wisconsin voters also dealt a surprise defeat to former US senator Russ Feingold, who lost a rematch with incumbent Senator Ron Johnson, despite polls showing Feingold with a healthy lead. That outcome helped Republicans retain control of the Senate, dousing Democratic hopes to retake the chamber they lost two years ago.

The state had been reliably Democratic for more than 30 years — like Massachusetts, not voting Republican since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide. President Obama won here in 2012 with 53 percent of the vote, to Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s 46 percent.

But analysts said a GOP tide has been flowing into Wisconsin. House Speaker Paul Ryan, of Janesville, is considered one of the party’s brightest young stars, and Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, grew up in Green Bay. Both chambers of the state legislature have Republican majorities, and the governor, Scott Walker, is a Republican.

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Surrounded by family members, US Senator Ron Johnson spoke at his election night party at the Oshkosh Convention Center.
Surrounded by family members, US Senator Ron Johnson spoke at his election night party at the Oshkosh Convention Center.Michael P. King/Wisconsin State Journal via AP

“In some ways, there’s abundant evidence that Wisconsin has been trending in a more Republican direction, even if it wasn’t reflected in the presidential polls,” said Eleanor Neff Powell, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

The state also does not require voters to register with a political party, meaning political undercurrents can be harder to anticipate. Also, voters may not have been telling pollsters the truth about who they supported.

“The interesting thing that people missed is that, frankly, a number of conservatives in Wisconsin who voted for Donald Trump were embarrassed about voting for Donald Trump,” said Josh Morby, a Milwaukee-based public affairs consultant with a background in Democratic politics. “At the pickup line at the school or in the locker room at the athletic club, when the discussion focused on Donald Trump doing X or Donald Trump saying Y, a lot of Wisconsinites in polite company had a hard time saying they were going to vote for that guy, and I think that’s the same conversation they had with pollsters.”

Jeff Mayers, president of WisPolitics.com, a non-partisan political site, said that, despite the vaunted Democratic turnout machine, Clinton’s campaign failed to get backers to the polls.

“The short answer is Democrats didn’t turn out in the numbers they did the last two cycles, and it was the lowest turnout in Wisconsin since 1996,” Mayers said. “Bottom line is, she didn’t inherit the Obama coalition.”

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Trump lavished attention and money on Wisconsin. While he was heavily outspentin most swing states, the Center for Public Integrity found that Trump and his allies funded about 60 percent of the roughly 10,000 ads aired here between June 12 and Nov. 6. The onslaught began in September, and Clinton and her backers stayed off the air until Oct. 29.

Damico and others said the dissolution of the manufacturing industry and the Democratic Party’s focus on appealing to younger, more diverse Americans had driven middle-class white voters like here to revolt.

“A lot of people don’t like the way the country is going, and a lot of them voted the other night,” Damico said from behind the counter of Dawn’s Sweet Treats and Chocolate Falls.

On Tuesday, the Rust Belt, home to many of those anxieties, was crucial to Trump’s victory, as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — all of which went for Democrats four years ago — helped elect him.

Chelsea Adams, 27, a Clinton supporter who is a bartender at A.J.’s, said her customers regularly gripe to her about the decline in middle-class jobs and opportunities, even as the state announced last month that its unemployment rate had sunk to 4.1 percent, the lowest since February 2001. Many of her patrons, Adams said, were thrilled with Tuesday’s results, including her parents.

“It does make me nervous, all the hate he has spewed,” Adams said. “My friends of color, the LGBT community, I don’t know what to say to them.”

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Other Wisconsinites said they had not anticipated the Republican wave that washed over this part of the country.

“Incredible,” said Tim Corkum, working at a coffee shop on the downtown strip of this small town. “Polls got everything wrong.’’

Asked what he thought of Trump, Corkum replied, “I consider him an extreme risk to the security of America.”

At a bowling alley, several voters said they had waited up to see the final states votes’ called, hoping for a Trump win.

“I’m a big Second Amendment guy, and this was important to me,” said a man who identified himself as “Chip.” He said he supported Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the primary but Trump in the general.

Sanders beat Clinton by more than 13 percentage points in the state’s April primary.

Poll worker Cathy Machacek waved over voters to the electronic ballot box at the Department of Public Works garage on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, in Slinger, Wisconsin.
Poll worker Cathy Machacek waved over voters to the electronic ballot box at the Department of Public Works garage on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, in Slinger, Wisconsin.John Ehlke/West Bend Daily News via AP

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com.