LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Next week, voters will head to the polls for primaries in Wisconsin, a purple state that swung for President Donald Trump in 2016 and was key to his victory. We went to visit the state last week, and it's clear that the president still looms large over Wisconsin. All you have to do is watch a little local TV and attack ads from both parties.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: President Trump needs an ally he can trust in the U.S. Senate. That's not Kevin Nicholson.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: If Scott Walker isn't scary enough, now Donald Trump is in control.
LEAH VUKMIR: I'm not endorsing Donald Trump. I haven't made any endorsements.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That's Leah Vukmir. But it gets worse.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We spent some time talking to groups important to both Democrats and Republicans there. We chatted with dairy farmers at the state fair and black voters in Milwaukee neighborhoods. And yes, we ate some cheese curds. We'll bring you those stories elsewhere in the program. But first, President Trump is still in Bedminster, N.J., this morning at what the White House is at pains to call a working vacation. He's due back in Washington tomorrow, just missing the one-year anniversary of the deadly rally in Charlottesville, Va., which is being marked in both Charlottesville and here in D.C. I'm joined now by Mara Liasson. She's NPR's national political correspondent. Good morning, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: There has been a lot about the Trump presidency that's been - I think, to put it in polite reporter terms - remarkable. But his reaction to Charlottesville last year ranks pretty high.
LIASSON: That's right. The president said last year that there were very fine people on both sides. He seemed to draw an equivalence between the white nationalist marchers and the people who protested them, one of whom was killed by a man with neo-Nazi connections. And although yesterday, the president did tweet that he condemned, quote, "all types of racism" - it almost sounded like he was talking about bad people on both sides - he has regularly continued to demean African-Americans. Recently, he attacked the intelligence of a African-American congresswoman, an African-American television anchor and LeBron James, the basketball star. And he repeatedly goes after African-American football players who kneel during the national anthem. This weekend, he tweeted they should be suspended without pay.
So in all of the ways that he differs from previous presidents, I think the most significant one is that he doesn't see his role as a unifier. That's something that all previous presidents have. His modus operandi really is division, which worked for him during the campaign. And he believes it still does. Just to give you an example, in a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, 57 percent of Americans said that race relations have gotten worse under President Trump, compared to 37 percent who said the same thing about President Obama.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, it's been a year since Charlottesville, but it's less than three months until the midterm elections. And the president really isn't shy about tweeting about that. I mean, he's really gone all in to try and insert himself into this race.
LIASSON: That's right. He is very active in campaigning for Republican candidates. This weekend, he tweeted some more attacks on Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House. And this really tells you a lot about the Republicans' message strategy in this campaign. They start out in almost every one of these special elections with a positive message about the economy and about tax cuts. And when that doesn't work - because the tax cuts are getting less and less popular - they have reverted to a negative message, trying to disqualify their Democratic opponents, which is what incumbents do who don't have a positive story to tell or at least one that voters are buying, which is remarkable considering how good the economy is doing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've talked about President Trump as a politician who speaks and acts in ways that really cater to his core supporters, even at the expense of turning others off. But I'm wondering, how does that gel with an approval rating that's, on average, inched up over the course of 2018? I mean, he does have a good news story to tell. It was just about 40 percent in January, and now it's about 43 percent.
LIASSON: That's right. He is right about where President Obama and President Clinton and George W. Bush were in terms of approval ratings. Now, of course, all three of them went on to lose one house of Congress or both. But where he's different from previous presidents in his approval ratings and what makes him historically unpopular and a potential drag on Republican candidates is the size and intensity of his disapproval ratings. In other words, no one is lukewarm or neutral about President Trump. He's more polarizing than previous presidents. And the difference between his approval rating and his disapproval rating, or his strong approval rating and his strong disapproval rating, is greater than previous presidents. He has a higher disapproval rating. And midterm elections are usually a referendum on the president and his party.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you so much.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.