Welcome to the online version of From the Politics Desk, an evening newsletter that brings you the NBC News Politics team’s latest reporting and analysis from the campaign trail, the White House and Capitol Hill.

In today’s edition, national political correspondent Steve Kornacki breaks down Donald Trump’s challenges in Wisconsin as he returns to the state. Plus, NBC News has new reporting on how the GOP’s mail voting push keeps running into the same obstacle: the former president.

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3 big hurdles confronting Trump in Wisconsin this fall

Analysis by Steve Kornacki

Donald Trump is in Wisconsin today for a rally that coincides with the state’s presidential primary but that his campaign is billing as the launch of its general election effort in one of 2024’s premier battlegrounds.

The Badger State is, along with Michigan and Pennsylvania, one of the three Big Ten states that flipped to Trump in 2016 after backing Democrats for decades. All three returned to the Democratic fold in 2020, cutting off Trump’s path to re-election.

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Of the three, Wisconsin may offer Trump his best chance of clawing back lost ground. Joe Biden’s margin of victory in the state was just 20,682 votes (or 0.6%), narrower than both Michigan (154,188 votes) and Pennsylvania (80,555 votes). If Trump can win Wisconsin back, he could then claim the presidency by reversing tight losses in Arizona (10,457 votes) and Georgia (11,779 votes). These three states, with no other changes to the map, would bring Trump to 272 electoral votes.

Trump suffered a net loss of 43,430 votes in Wisconsin from 2016 to 2020. The 2020 results reveal three clear hurdles there for Trump this year. 

The suburbs: Any Wisconsin breakdown will invariably invoke the “WOW” counties — Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington, three big suburban areas outside Milwaukee that account for about 13% of all votes cast in the state. All three have deep Republican traditions and have remained solidly red even as similar suburbs nationally have transformed into blue bastions. But since Trump’s emergence, two of them have become noticeably less red:

Had Trump retained his 2016 levels of support in Waukesha and Ozaukee, his statewide margin of defeat in 2020 would have been reduced to just over 10,000 votes. He can’t afford any further erosion here this fall, and he will likely need to boost his margins from their 2020 levels.

Gains Trump didn’t sustain: Then there are the counties anchored by small to midsize cities where Trump posted big improvements off past GOP performances in 2016 — and then gave back crucial ground in 2020.

Add the ground Trump surrendered in these five counties in 2020 to his reduced margins in Waukesha and Ozaukee, and it accounts for all of his statewide margin of defeat and more. In other words, it’s not coincidental that Trump’s kickoff event today is in the seat of Brown County, Green Bay.

Dane County gets bigger and bluer: The state’s largest city, Milwaukee, remains a crucial source of votes for Democrats. But their new ace in the hole is Dane County, home to Madison and the University of Wisconsin. Dane has the state’s highest concentration of white voters with college degrees and is filled with college students and plenty of higher income areas. It’s gaining population, too, and seems to be getting bluer with each election:

Turnout levels in Dane have also been astronomical in recent elections. It’s hard to imagine Trump gaining ground here, but easy to envision Democrats racking up even bigger margins this fall. This underscores how crucial it will be for Trump to make gains elsewhere. And this is where he hopes to have his own ace in the hole.

Where Trump gained ground: Even as he lost ground overall between the last two presidential elections, Trump actually netted more votes in 50 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. A few of these counties are sizable (Kenosha and Washington), but most are smaller and more rural and working class. And all of them contain a higher concentration of white voters without college degrees than the statewide average.

Many of them featured enormous swings toward Trump and the GOP when he first ran in 2016 — gains that he then built on marginally in 2020. Combined, they accounted for 42% of all votes cast in the state four years ago, with Trump posting an overall net improvement of nearly 41,000 votes. It wasn’t enough to offset his regression elsewhere, but there may be more juice for Trump to squeeze from these counties this fall — and he will probably need it if he’s going to make Wisconsin red again.

Republicans want to push mail voting, but Trump keeps getting in the way

By Natasha Korecki, Matt Dixon, Abigail Brooks and Emma Barnett

When Trump held a rally last year in Erie County, an important area in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, the top Republican official there went one by one to the 11,000 people waiting in line to ask one question: Would you like to vote by mail?

It did not go well.

“I tried to give them a mail-in ballot application, and could only get out about 300,” Tom Eddy, head of the county’s Republican Party, said. “Every one of them said either, ‘No that’s not the right way to vote,’ or ‘Trump does not agree with it.’”

What happened in Erie County is emblematic of the ongoing feud within the GOP over one of the most fundamental elements of elections: how to vote. 

National Republicans are attempting a shift to embrace mail-in and early voting to match what’s been a Democratic advantage in recent years.

But interviews with nearly 20 Republican officials and voters across the country say there is lingering, and sometimes fierce, resistance to the idea — from Trump on down. The schism signals potential peril for the party in the fall if it once again fails to match Democrats’ ballot organization. 

It starts at the top. As the leader of the Republican Party, Trump has used his position to blast, without evidence, mail-in voting as a Trojan horse for widespread voter fraud. In the process, the former president has eroded trust in a method that was once widely embraced by many people in his party, putting Republicans at a disadvantage against Democrats. 

“Mail-in voting is totally corrupt,” Trump said bluntly during a February rally in Michigan. In his stump speeches, written remarks often include a plug for mail-in voting, but Trump struggles to recite the lines without casting doubt on early-voting options.

Mail ballots peaked during the pandemic-plagued 2020 election cycle at 43 million, according to the MIT Election Data Science Lab. That number dropped to 31 million during the 2022 midterms, a falloff that was expected because there were no pandemic-era voting restrictions and midterm elections generally have lower turnout than presidential elections. It was still up substantially from the 23 million mail ballots cast during the 2018 midterms. 

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🗞️ Today’s top stories

  • 🦡 Badger State ballot: Voters participating in the Wisconsin primary will decide on two GOP-backed constitutional amendments that could affect how elections are run in the battleground state. Meanwhile, young progressives are looking to voice their opposition to Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war by voting “uninstructed” in Tuesday’s ballot. Read more →
  • 🚫 Invitation declined: Speaking of opposition to Biden over Gaza, several Muslim American leaders declined invitations to Ramadan events at the White House, causing the administration to scale them back. Read more →
  • 📱Call Xi, beep Xi, if you want to reach Xi: Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke for the first time since November, discussing a range of issues including cyberattacks, election interference, drug traffic and China’s relationship with Russia. Read more →
  • ⚖️ Trump trials: Trump posted a $175 million bond Monday night in his civil fraud case in New York, preventing his assets from being seized. And in the New York hush money case, Trump’s partial gag order was expanded after the former president attacked the judge’s daughter. Read more →
  • ✈️ Trump International Airport? A group of House Republicans introduced legislation to rename Dulles International Airport in Virginia after Trump. Read more → ✉️
  • Curb your criticism: Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger responded to recent episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” in which Larry David is arrested for violating the state’s law against providing food and drink to voters at polling places. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Raffensperger wrote a letter cheekily apologizing to David for his treatment in jail, writing: “I’m afraid they’ve gotten used to bigger stars. It’s the TMZ of mugshots.” Read more →

That’s all from The Politics Desk for now. If you have feedback — likes or dislikes — email us at politicsnewsletter@nbcuni.com

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