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US elections: Which way will the battleground states of Minnesota and Wisconsin swing?

Pastor Rozenia Fuller votes early at a polling station in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Friday October 9, 2020.
Pastor Rozenia Fuller votes early at a polling station in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Friday October 9, 2020. © Jessica Le Masurier

In US presidential elections, the vote in certain states is predictable. But in others – known as swing states – there can be surprises. Our correspondents Jessica Le Masurier and Céline Bruneau travelled to the key battleground states of Minnesota and Wisconsin to see whether voters in America's heartland will choose Donald Trump or Joe Biden as their next president.

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It's dusk in Mountain Iron, a town in northern Minnesota's Iron Range, and Junior Kolterman is getting ready for bed. The third generation miner, who has been operating heavy machinery for 25 years, is relaxing in front of the history channel with his wife and children, before an early bedtime. He starts his 12-hour shifts at 6am.

Junior lives in a region that was historically Democratic up until 2016, when miners voted en masse for Donald Trump.

Miner Junior Kolterman stands in front of his home in Minnesota's Iron Range, on October 5th 2020.
Miner Junior Kolterman stands in front of his home in Minnesota's Iron Range, on October 5th 2020. © Jessica Le Masurier

Junior, whose front garden is adorned with "Steelworkers for Trump" signs, explains why he gave up on the Democrats. "Years ago this whole area was all Democratic and as a matter of fact, I voted all Democrat years ago too. They say they're for the working people but if they keep pushing their radical environmental agenda it's gonna put us right out of business on the Iron Range."

Junior voted for Trump in 2016. "I liked that he wasn't a politician; he is a businessman and it was time for a change in this country."

Junior is one of many defectors on the Iron Range and plans to vote for Trump again this time round, despite the fact that union leaders say the Republican candidate is peddling lies.

"How anyone can support President Trump when he's attacked our way of life for the last three and a half years is beyond me. He's a friend of the corporations, he's a friend of his rich friends. He's not a friend of the working men and women. He hasn't done a damn thing. We're not doing good up here," explains an exasperated John Arbogast, the staff representative for United Steelworkers, District 11.

John Arbogast, Staff Representative United Steelworkers, District 11 in Eveleth, Minnesota on October 5th 2020.
John Arbogast, Staff Representative United Steelworkers, District 11 in Eveleth, Minnesota on October 5th 2020. © Jessica Le Masurier

John's union office is in the town of Eveleth. Its entire economy was built on the mines but, as the industry fell into decline, it became a ghost town. Shops are shuttered, the only places still open appear to be a couple of bars, where miners go to drink after their long shifts. Mines in the region have been shutting down one by one due to a multitude of reasons including low foreign steel prices, automation and outsourcing. 

John cannot believe that miners are letting themselves be duped by Trump.

Miners' votes almost handed Trump a win in Minnesota in 2016 – he ended up losing the state to Hillary Clinton, but only by 45,000 votes.

One reason he lost was because people in urban areas, like Minneapolis, still vote Democrat.

Four years on, Joe Biden is banking on Black voters in urban areas turning out to vote. In 2016, many abstained, another reason why the vote was so close.

But African-Americans may be more motivated this time thanks to the civil rights movement that has gained support over the last year in the United States. 

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May has led to outrage and calls for an end to systemic racism and police violence against African-Americans.

At the crossroads where Floyd died under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin, African-American Pastor Rozenia Fuller explains what's at stake. "We're fighting for our very lives in this election. We have a president who has put full display of white supremacy. And so our voice counts. I know that some of us are very sad. Some of us have given up. But this is not the time for giving up."

Rozenia Fuller joined millions of other Americans, taking advantage of early voting, and has been encouraging other members of her community to do the same.

Urban concerns seem far removed from those of rural voters. Trump has had success wooing farmers and loggers in neighbouring Wisconsin.

Logger Jeremy Miller doing target practice in a Wisconsin forest on October 7th 2020.
Logger Jeremy Miller doing target practice in a Wisconsin forest on October 7th 2020. © Jessica Le Masurier

Jeremy Miller, a 41-year-old logger who lives in Barron, Wisconsin is backing Donald Trump. Sporting a "Making Logging Great Again" baseball cap – which he got at a Trump rally in Duluth, Minnesota – Jeremy explains why he does not like "big government". "I don't want free handouts, free healthcare – I don't need any of that. I just want to be left to pave my own way." Jeremy fears that the Democrats will impose environmental restrictions on his industry that will threaten his livelihood.

Jeremy and his friend Dave Cox also treasure their right to bear arms. They explain over a game of pool at a local bar, decorated with the taxidermied bodies of animals indigenous to the surrounding countryside, that they are ready to fight back with their weapons, should they feel under threat. "We need to take our country back from the liberals that want a socialist country," Dave Cox says. For him, socialism is a dirty word.

In 2016, Wisconsin flipped to the Republicans for the first time since 1984. Trump won with just 23,000 votes. Those votes came mainly from rural areas and, in particular, from farmers. This time round, Trump has tried to make sure farmers in the state, known as America's dairyland, continue to support him.

Yet farmers have suffered during Trump's term as president, largely due to his trade war with China. Trouble for dairy farmers started in 2018, when, in an attempt to protect US production, the president shut the door on Chinese imports. Beijing retaliated and exports of US dairy products to China declined by more than 50 percent, with milk prices plummeting. Many farmers were driven to bankruptcy, including Lynn Hicks, who runs her own family farm, with her husband, Nick, in Gilman.

Despite their economic woes, Nick continues to support Trump. He explains that he believes Trump had to drive a hard bargain with China in order to get a better deal in the long run. "Why would you run a business where you're shipping your stuff to somebody else and they put huge taxes on it but with everything coming in from them, you don’t put nothing on? Put no taxes on? How can you run a business? There's no way that you can keep doing that and not have millions or trillions of dollars worth of debt. And that's what's happened to this country." 

Nick says that if Trump gets a second term, "we're gonna realise that the things that he was doing were actually the right things to do".

Since farmers' fortunes were impacted by the trade war, Trump has sent them stimulus checks. 

Fifth-generation dairy farmer John Rosenholm is an outlier in a region where the country lanes are lined with Trump signs.

John, who has a farm with 700 cows in Cochrane, Wisconsin, says he lost $400,000 due to Trump's trade war. Since then, he has received a number of government stimulus checks.

John believes Trump is trying to buy farmers' votes: "It's kind of funny because they're always saying they're anti-socialist and anti-this and anti-communist, and don't want the government to do all this stuff, but any time we have a Republican president we get in an economic bind and then they start shovelling money out, borrowing money like mad. And none of us know how we're gonna pay that back. I find it kind of ironic."

Dairy farmer John Rosenholm in Cochrane, Wisconsin on October  7th 2020.
Dairy farmer John Rosenholm in Cochrane, Wisconsin on October 7th 2020. © Jessica Le Masurier

A few kilometres from the Rosenholm farm, in the town of Alma, which is on a stretch of the Mississippi river that runs between Wisconsin and Minnesota, Lori McCammon described how she lost faith in Trump. The 65-year-old grandmother lived in California in 2016 and, frightened by illegal immigration, she voted for Trump. With tears in her eyes, she explains why she has regretted that vote ever since. "When I saw the children in the cages... I'm a mum and I'm a grandma. To take children away from their parents... Some of these were breastfeeding babies, taken away from their mothers. Some of these children will never be united with their parents because we don't know where their parents are. That is beyond cruel."

Lori has joined "Republicans against Trump", a group of disillusioned voters who are supporting Joe Biden. Lori is trying to convince other Republicans, like her retired friend Frank Zacher, to jump ship as well.

Lori McCammon and Frank Zacher take a walk along the Mississippi river in Alma, Wisconsin on October 8th, 2020.
Lori McCammon and Frank Zacher take a walk along the Mississippi river in Alma, Wisconsin on October 8th, 2020. © Jessica Le Masurier

The two friends talk about politics as they take a stroll along the Mississippi river. The conversation stays civil but they do not see eye to eye. Frank's own family is being torn apart by this election. "I have a 39-year-old daughter who said that if I vote for Trump she's never gonna talk to me again for the rest of my life. And elections should never be that way. I think adults should be able to vote for who they want to vote for and, you know, the day after voting we find out who won the election and we kind of join forces and try to make things better."

Lori blames Trump for poisoning people against each other: "He's created the Divided States of America."

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