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Wisconsin Was Never A Safe Blue State

This is the fifth in a series of articles examining the politics and demographics of 2020’s expected swing states.

Wisconsin is proof that politicos have short memories. In 2004, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry carried Wisconsin by just 0.4 percentage points — making it the closest state in the country. Four years earlier, it had been even closer — Democrat Al Gore won the Badger State by just 5,708 votes, or 0.2 points.

But Democrat Barack Obama really connected with Wisconsin voters, winning the state by 14 points in 2008 and 7 points in 2012. Going into 2016, that contributed to a sense that Wisconsin was a safe bet for Hillary Clinton — part of the mythical “blue wall.” It had, after all, voted Democratic in seven consecutive presidential elections by that point.

We all know what happened next: Now-President Trump carried Wisconsin by 0.8 percentage points, reaffirming its status as a swing state. It was the third time in five presidential elections that Wisconsin was decided by less than a point. Fast forward to 2020, and both sides are rightly treating it as a potential tipping point state. According to the FiveThirtyEight forecast,1 Wisconsin has a 13 percent chance of providing the decisive vote in the Electoral College; only Pennsylvania and Florida are likelier tipping points.

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Conventional wisdom says that Clinton lost Wisconsin because she infamously did not visit the state at all during the final seven months of the 2016 campaign. But that’s probably not true; Clinton devoted a lot of effort to winning Pennsylvania and still lost there, for instance. Instead, Wisconsin probably got redder in 2016 for the same reason that Pennsylvania and other Midwestern states did: demographics. The one-time home of progressive stalwarts like Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette and Victor Berger could not escape the modern reality that white people without a bachelor’s degree — who make up 59 percent of Wisconsin’s population age 25 and older — have become more and more Republican, especially in the Trump era. According to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, white voters without a college degree in Wisconsin went from supporting Mitt Romney 52 percent to 47 percent in 2012 to supporting Trump 56 percent to 38 percent in 2016. And as you can see in the map below, counties with the highest shares of white residents without a college degree veered the sharpest to the right:

These trends have left Wisconsin a light red state; according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric (newly updated for the 2020 cycle!),2 the state is 2.8 points more Republican-leaning than the nation as a whole. Yet Democrats could easily still win it in 2020, given Biden’s double-digit lead against Trump nationally, and considering they have multiple (non-mutually exclusive) paths forward in the state.

First, they could keep improving among suburban voters. As the map above shows, the Milwaukee suburbs were pretty much the only part of Wisconsin that actually moved toward Democrats in 2016. The problem is that, unlike, say, the Philadelphia suburbs, Milwaukee’s are still deeply Republican. The so-called “WOW counties” — Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington — have historically been the center of Republican power in the state, powering such politicians as former Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus and former Gov. Scott Walker. And all the Trump era has done is turn them from maroon to crimson: Even as Republicans bombed in other suburban areas around the country, Trump still carried the WOW counties in 2016 by 28 percentage points, and Walker carried them by 35 points in Wisconsin’s 2018 gubernatorial race. It will be very interesting to see if Biden can continue to eat into that margin, though — if so, it could have long-term implications for Wisconsin politics.

Second, Democrats could fix their turnout problem among Black voters. According to the CAP analysis, 74 percent of eligible Black voters turned out to vote in Wisconsin in 2012, but only 55 percent did in 2016. Given that Black Wisconsinites voted for Clinton 92 percent to 4 percent, that was a huge blow to Democrats: According to CAP’s calculations, Clinton would have won Wisconsin if Black voters had turned out at 2012 levels but everything else had stayed the same.3

Third, of course, Democrats could win back some non-college-educated white voters. This may be the path of least resistance: In the 2018 gubernatorial race, Democrat Tony Evers won six predominantly white, working-class counties in southwest Wisconsin that Trump carried in 2016. And according to a Siena College/The New York Times Upshot poll of Wisconsin from early October, Trump led Biden just 50 percent to 44 percent among white voters without a bachelor’s degree — much closer to the 2012 margin than 2016’s.

Indeed, it appears that Biden is on track for something much closer to the comfortable Democratic victories he and his old boss enjoyed in Wisconsin in 2008 and 2012 than Clinton’s showing in 2016. The FiveThirtyEight forecast gives Biden an 88 in 100 chance of winning the state; the average projected vote share margin is Biden 53.0 percent, Trump 46.1 percent. But Biden owes that commanding lead mostly to his overall national strength: We’re expecting him to win the national popular vote by 8.3 points — which means that Wisconsin is still more Trump-friendly than average.

So even an Obama-level Biden win would not solve Democrats’ underlying problems in the state. If Trump were to make a national comeback, or if there’s a significant polling error, or even just looking ahead to 2024, Republicans could be well-positioned to win Wisconsin once again. The combination of high support among white voters without a college degree, suburbs that are still dark red and the decisiveness of Black turnout makes Wisconsin, in the long term, arguably the most likely brick in the Midwestern “blue wall” to be painted red.

CLARIFICATION (Oct. 16, 2020, 10:15 a.m.): This story has been updated to more precisely describe Reince Priebus’s and Scott Walker’s connections to “WOW counties.”

Footnotes

  1. As of 5 p.m. on Oct. 15.

  2. Partisan lean is the average difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall, with 2016 presidential election results weighted 50 percent, 2012 presidential election results weighted 25 percent and results from elections for the state legislature weighted 25 percent.

  3. Notably, this is a different problem from what Democrats face in Pennsylvania, where CAP found no significant dropoff in Black turnout from 2012 to 2016. The problem there was that Black Pennsylvanians simply weren’t as Democratic as they were in 2012.

Nathaniel Rakich is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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