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For Wisconsin voters, COVID-19, economy are top of mind

Over a million absentee ballots have already been cast in Wisconsin, where COVID-19 and a reeling tourism economy are major issues for voters. PBS Wisconsin political reporter Zac Schultz speaks with Hari Sreenivasan about the changing political landscape in this key swing state.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For more on the issues that Wisconsin voters have front-of-mind this election season, I spoke with PBS Wisconsin reporter Zachary Schultz.

  • Zachary Schultz:

    Well, clearly COVID-19, the pandemic is the number one issue across Wisconsin. We saw a kind of up and down caseloads throughout the summer. But starting right after Labor Day, college kids came back to campus and after a lot of people around Labor Day took their family vacations. We saw cases skyrocket and we're over 3,000 cases a day on a seven-day average that we just had a day with 4,000 new cases, 1,600 deaths in Wisconsin. And this is clearly the top of the mind. It infiltrates every element of life for everyone in Wisconsin right now.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    I'm assuming you guys are seeing a lot of TV ads these days, but is there a difference in how the campaigns have been trying to reach these voters?

  • Zachary Schultz:

    Absolutely. Republicans have been knocking doors since June. They stopped in early spring when both campaigns put all that on hold at the beginning of a pandemic. But Republicans went back out in the field and they have not stopped and they feel that that is still the best way to reach voters and get them to their message, whereas Democrats are not doing that at all. They have made a strict policy that they don't do doors. They think their voters will penalize them for it. And they're hoping that moderates will reward them for not coming to their door and risking anything across that close barrier.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How about the local politics and how that connects to the state and federal level?

  • Zachary Schultz:

    Absolutely. Wisconsin's got a lot of gerrymandered districts at the Assembly and state Senate level. So most Republicans are running very, very close to Donald Trump. They're not looking for any distance.

    The ones that are, maybe some of the suburban seats even started to see some shift towards the Democrats, have mostly been silent. They're trying to talk up whatever issue that they've worked on locally. They don't want to talk about a national campaign or about COVID, frankly. The state legislature is controlled by Republicans. And since a bill in the spring, they have not been back in session. And Democrats are trying to make that inactivity a big issue for the fall election.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    I'm assuming that the economy has taken a hit like everywhere else because of all the people that would have come to Wisconsin to summer.

  • Zachary Schultz:

    Yes, absolutely. Tourism's a big part of our economy here. And the Northwoods and all the travel destinations, bars and taverns and restaurants really live and die by these tourism seasons and frankly, by some of the Packer and Badger games that we're not seeing the same activity. All of our stadiums are empty. Those are huge drivers of the economy. And it's becoming a political flashpoint and that our Democratic governor, Tony Evers, has tried to enforce more restrictions on bars and restaurants to stop the spread of COVID. And the Tavern League is going to court to try and open it back up, saying businesses are just going to close down permanently without any more federal assistance.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    I know most of the time we talk about Election Day, but now it feels like it's election season. Considering how many people are actually going to the polls early or mailing in their ballots, what kind of information do we have about Wisconsin voters doing that?

  • Zachary Schultz:

    We have already received more than one million ballots back in place, which to give you some perspective, there were only three million ballots in 2016 altogether. So we're at 30 percent of 2016. Now we're expecting larger turnout than that overall to 2016 was a down year, especially for Democrats, and there is a lot more enthusiasm for that. But we have nothing to compare this to.

    In the past, early voting and absentee by mail were considered one pool and they were relatively small pool for voters. But after what we happened in the spring with the pandemic in our, our presidential primary in the middle of closed down polling sites, people are voting early and doing that in-person to try and get that in as early as possible. I think 150,000 people have voted absentee early in-person in just the last two days.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Zac Schultz, PBS Wisconsin. Thanks so much.

  • Zachary Schultz:

    Thank you.

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