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Biden's personal touch and the Supreme Court boost Democrats' enthusiasm in this swing county

Trump eked out a win in Wisconsin after Hillary Clinton ignored the state. The former VP isn't making that mistake.
Image: Joe Biden
Joe Biden makes a zero with his hand at an aluminum manufacturing facility in Manitowoc, Wis., on Monday.Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images

MANITOWOC, Wis. — Democratic voters in this working-class town on the shores of Lake Michigan just got a double jolt of motivation to cast their ballots for Joe Biden: a visit from their party's nominee, and a vacancy on the Supreme Court that President Donald Trump is vowing to fill before the election.

Those dual factors could help Biden earn enough votes in this small industrial city, 40 miles south of Green Bay, to make up the huge deficit that Hillary Clinton ran up in the county in the 2016 election — and swing Wisconsin blue again.

Conversations with 20 voters here this week painted a picture of an area that appears ready to retire Trump after one term and hand Biden the reins of the country because they feel he's listening, will handle the pandemic better, and they're angry about the hurry the GOP is in to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last week.

"For Trump to push this through, it's absolutely crazy to me. They should wait until we know who the next president is going to be," said Claudette Quint, 58, who works in the shipping department at a local hydraulic components maker.

Quint didn't vote for either Clinton or Trump in 2016 — she said she was "disgusted with the both of them" — but voted twice each for Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

Image: Manitowoc, Wisconsin resident
Claudette Quint, of Manitowoc, Wis., didn’t vote in the 2016 election. This year she is supporting Joe Biden.Adam Edelman / NBC News

But this time, "because of all the lies, because of the Supreme Court, because of how he’s handled the virus," she's backing Trump's rival.

Peggy Turnbull, 66, a retired college librarian, said she can't understand "the incredible hypocrisy by the Republicans."

Her criticism refers to Senate Republicans’ decision in 2016 to not give Merrick Garland, Obama's choice for the high court vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, a confirmation hearing because they said it was an election year. This year, with another election just weeks away, Trump and Senate Republicans are moving forward to fill the latest vacancy anyway.

"I find that so disturbing," Turnbull, a Democrat, said.

And even though Biden, when he spoke in Manitowoc on Monday, didn't address the vacancy, Turnbull said she was thrilled that the Democratic nominee came to her hometown to woo voters — something Clinton didn't do in 2016.

"I was delighted he came here. Delighted. I'd like to see the Democrats really fight to take back Wisconsin," she said.

Image: Manitowoc, Wisconsin residents
Bob and Peggy Turnbull, of Manitowoc, Wis., are voting for Joe Biden this fall. Adam Edelman / NBC News

Growing excitement for Biden fueled by his visit, his second to this key battleground state this month, together with growing anger over the Supreme Court — an issue that has historically tended to motivate Republicans to vote far more than it has Democrats — seem to be working to Biden's advantage.

And in Wisconsin — which Trump won by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016, marking the first time that the state went red in 32 years — every advantage, big or small, is going to matter.

That's especially true in a place like Manitowoc, which has seen its support for Democratic presidential candidates steadily dwindle over the past three elections.

In 2008, Obama won Manitowoc County by a comfortable 8 percentage points. In 2012, Obama lost it to Mitt Romney by 2.8 percentage points.

But by 2016 — with the GOP nominee pounding a trade message that painted Democrats' support of free trade deals as destroying industrial towns like Manitowoc and with Clinton never setting foot in the state during the general election — Trump won the county by more than 21 percentage points.

Experts have attributed swings like that in states such as Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania to Democrats not effectively reaching blue-collar voters. And strategists have told NBC News that, given Trump's narrow win four years ago, Biden doesn't have to win places like Manitowoc County — he just needs to narrow the gap.

It's clear Biden is looking to do just that.

"I know many of you believe you weren't being seen or heard. I get it," he said Monday at the Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry. "It has to change."

"I promise you this," he continued, "you will be seen, heard and respected by me."

That message lit a smile up on the face of Ann Goethals, a resident of nearby Reedsville, who has voted Democratic in presidential races for decades and was crushed the party appeared to take the state for granted in the last race.

"The fact that he came to Manitowoc is awesome," she said.

Chuck Snoeyenbos, 63, didn't vote in 2016 because he "couldn't see either candidate as president."

But with a Supreme Court seat on the line and his frustration with Trump mounting — "I don't want a madman in office for four more years," he said. Snoeyenbos, who described himself as an independent, said he's voting for Biden this year. He said he wants Democrats to do everything they can to counter GOP efforts to fill the vacancy in case the election outcome ends up being decided by the Supreme Court, as it was in 2000.

"This matters a lot. I wish they'd push back harder," he said. "My worry is that Trump will fill the spot on court to have a better chance at fighting the election results.”

Bob Turnbull, on the other hand, said he was resigned to the fact that Republicans would push through Trump's nominee. But that's only made him more enthusiastic for Biden.

"There is a great deal of helplessness. On the pandemic, on the Supreme Court," Turnbull, a Democrat, said. "I don't think we really can find a way to prevent the Republicans from filling that seat, so our vote — that is the only thing that can really turn this around and end this feeling of helplessness."