Five months ago, President Trump fired up thousands of fans at a campaign rally in Milwaukee with a boastful question for a state he barely won in 2016: “How are your 401(k)’s doing?” he bellowed.
“In Wisconsin, the unemployment rate has reached its lowest level in history,” the president told the crowd, betraying his confidence that he would win the state again in November. “How’s that for a sound bite? How do you beat that sound bite, right?”
On Thursday, Mr. Trump returned to a state whose economy has been ravaged by the coronavirus shutdown, with an unemployment rate that has soared to just above 14 percent from below 4 percent. Appearing at a shipyard on Lake Michigan that builds ships for the Navy, he sought to recapture some of his past optimism.
“With the help of everyone here today, this shipyard will continue to prosper,” the president told workers at Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Marinette. “This state will continue to thrive. And this nation that we love will climb to new heights of glory and to greatness.”
Mr. Trump eked out a victory in Wisconsin in 2016, defeating Hillary Clinton by less than a percentage point and winning the state’s crucial 10 electoral votes. Since then, the president and his campaign have expressed confidence that he will do it again.
But without the economic good news he heralded in January, Mr. Trump now trails former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., his presumptive Democratic rival for the presidency, by double digits in Wisconsin, according to recent polls of the state’s likely voters, raising new doubts about his re-election chances.
The president made no mention of the polls on Thursday, though he earlier posted on Twitter about what he called “phony Fake Suppression Polls.” Instead he bragged about increasing investment in the military and lavished praise on the workers assembled to hear him speak.
“Your patriotism cannot be outsourced. Your eight decades of industrial heritage cannot be replicated anywhere in the world,” he said. “That’s why we’re protecting our defense and our defensive industrial base, which we’re building up stronger and stronger and stronger.”
Mr. Trump’s visit to the state was meant to appeal to its manufacturing base. He announced a $5 billion contract with Fincantieri Marinette Marine to build up to 10 guided missile frigates for the Navy.
In a statement, the White House said the company planned to invest $130 million to upgrade its facility and add about 1,000 jobs, underscoring the president’s “commitment to bolstering the United States’ defense industrial base and securing jobs for hardworking Americans.”
Before his remarks, Mr. Trump toured the plant with four of its executives for about a half-hour, at one point watching a welder working on the hull of a ship.
“They’re magnificent, fast, with tremendous firepower, all built in Wisconsin, so we’re very happy,” said Mr. Trump, who was joined by Peter Navarro, his trade adviser, and the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross. The four executives wore masks during the tour; Mr. Trump and his advisers did not.
In his speech, the president made the most of the influence his administration’s choice of company to build the next-generation guided missile frigate would have in Marinette.
“This is a mainstay of your community and it was facing the prospect of a final layoff, and a total downsize production, downsized to almost nothing,” he said. “But this past April, Marinette’s fortunes turned around and they turned around quickly.”
“It’s one of the biggest contracts you’ve ever seen in the state,” he added.
Democrats hope Wisconsin voters will reject Mr. Trump after watching his performance during four years in office. And they were buoyed by their success in April, defeating a conservative candidate for the State Supreme Court whom Mr. Trump had enthusiastically endorsed.
Now, the party is betting that voters will be further turned off by the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus, which has infected more than 26,000 people and killed at least 768 in Wisconsin, according to a tally by The New York Times.
In a Times/Siena College survey released on Thursday, Mr. Trump is trailing Mr. Biden by 11 points in Wisconsin and is also behind by double digits in Michigan and Pennsylvania, two other key battleground states he won four years ago. In those three states, the survey showed that Mr. Trump is losing to Mr. Biden among white voters — a group he won by more than 10 points four years ago.
On his way to the event on Thursday, supporters lined the streets with 2020 campaign signs like “Gun Owners For Trump.” Some anti-Trump signs were also present, including “Go Back to Your Bunker” and “Trump 45 Agent Orange.”