MILWAUKEE — All eyes were on Wisconsin voters as they hit the polls on Tuesday — and, of course, the mail slots and drop boxes for weeks before that.
The perpetual battleground state has played a key role in the 2020 election, and once again kept the nation on the edge of its seat with its razor-thin margins until it was called for Biden on Wednesday.
Here, we unpack some of the important trends from how this year’s presidential race played out in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin really got out the vote
This historic election pushed more Wisconsinites than ever to cast their ballots, even in the middle of a global pandemic.
The state’s still-technically-unofficial results show that 3,296,374 residents voted either in person or absentee this year, shattering the previous record of 3,071,434 voters in the 2012 election.
“I am so proud of Wisconsin’s voters,” Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe said in a Thursday statement. “Not just for the record numbers with which they participated in their democracy, but for the peaceful, civil way they did it in this extremely challenging year.”
In line with nationwide trends, more Wisconsin voters turned to mail-in and early voting options this year. The WEC estimates that nearly 2 million absentee ballots were processed in the state — a major jump from around 820,000 absentee votes in 2016.
Wisconsin, which typically has high voter turnout compared to other states, also saw an uptick in turnout rates from the last presidential election. Around 73% of all eligible voters cast their ballots this year, the WEC estimates.
That’s not quite a record: the state saw a slightly higher percentage in 2004, when there were fewer eligible voters in the state. But it is a significant increase from 2016, when 67% of voting-age Wisconsinites cast their ballots.
Even that lower 2016 rate was enough to land Wisconsin in the top five states for voter turnout, according to data collected by the United States Election Project.
And it’s not giving up its battleground status
Yet again, the presidential election was a nail-biter in Wisconsin, with Biden eventually pulling ahead by less than 1% of the vote.
This year’s margin of around 20,500 votes is even slimmer than in 2016, when Trump flipped the state with just under 23,000 votes.
It’s another entry in a long history of tight races. Four of the last six presidential elections in Wisconsin have come down to less than 1% of the vote, as Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, points out on Twitter.
Wisconsin has also performed as a swing-ier swing state in the most recent elections: After a series of seven consecutive Democrat wins between 1988 and 2012, Wisconsin has now flipped from blue to red and back again in the past two presidential races.
All of this means Wisconsin isn’t likely to give up its spotlight as a key battleground state.
Both Biden and Trump focused lots of attention on Wisconsin in the lead-up to the election. The state saw near-constant visits from the candidates and their surrogates in the last stretch of the campaign season.
That pattern will probably continue into future elections, Craig Gilbert, Washington bureau chief for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, tells Spectrum News 1: Whenever the state seems to be falling into a more stable voting pattern, it inevitably flips again to keep the world on its toes.
“I don’t necessarily see a path forward where one party is going to begin to really gain a strong upper hand in the next few cycles in Wisconsin,” he says.
This race was all about margins
Out of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, only two actually flipped between 2016 and 2020. The others held onto the same red or blue status in their presidential votes, but the Democrats gained enough ground in the margins to win the state.
Door County and Sauk County, which went for Trump in the last election, both flipped for Biden this year, though not by much.
Trump held onto 58 other counties that had voted for him in 2016. That year was a major “realigning” in Wisconsin, Gilbert says, when many counties changed hands from Democrat to Republican — mostly in the western and northwestern parts of the state, according to a WisContext analysis.
The remaining 12 counties, including the state’s biggest urban centers of Milwaukee and Dane counties, went for Clinton in the last election and also supported Biden this time around.
Both the Democratic and Republican candidates netted more votes this year, as overall turnout increased and support for third-party or independent candidates waned.
In 2016, more than 106,000 Wisconsinites voted for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, and 31,000 others cast their ballots for Green Party candidate Jill Stein. This year, Libertarian Jo Jorgensen only received 38,271 votes, and decisions from the state Supreme Court and the WEC kept the Green Party — as well as Kanye West — off the ballot.
In the end, Wisconsin’s swing back from red to blue wasn’t about some major transformation of the political landscape. Instead, it came from small shifts in crucial areas of the state.
Trump lost ground in the crucial “BOW” and “WOW” counties
Some of the most politically important spots in Wisconsin fall into two clusters: the “BOW” counties up around Green Bay, and the “WOW” counties bordering Milwaukee.
The BOW counties — Brown, Outagamie, and Winnebago — make up a crucial “purple” area in the state. And the WOW counties — Washington, Ozaukee, and Waukesha — tend to provide an essential well of Republican support from white, educated, suburban voters.
This year, Trump again took home the majority of the votes in these counties, but Biden cut into his margins in every one of them.
The WOW counties still overwhelmingly voted for Trump over Biden — by a whopping 38-point margin in Washington County, 12 points in Ozaukee, and 21 points in Waukesha. Just like in 2016, Waukesha sent in more Republican votes than any other Wisconsin county, with 103,867 ballots for Trump.
But compared to his race against Hillary Clinton, this time Trump’s margins shrank by around 2 points in Washington, 7 in Ozaukee, and 5 in Waukesha.
Trump took the BOW counties by smaller margins: 7 percentage points in Brown County, 10 points in Outagamie, and 4 in Winnebago. His margins in this region shrank by about 3 points, 2 points, and 3 points, respectively.
Though Trump’s margins widened in other parts of the state, especially some smaller rural counties, those gains were offset by his slipping support in these key counties.
Plus, Biden added votes in Milwaukee and Madison areas
Just as Trump lost some votes in traditional Republican strongholds, Biden stirred up extra support from the state’s most heavily Democratic areas.
Milwaukee County, the most populous in Wisconsin, picked Biden over Trump by a 40-point margin — 4 points wider than for Clinton. And Dane County, home to the state capital of Madison, voted Democrat by a massive 53-point margin, 6 points wider than last election.
Combined, these two counties sent in over 70,000 additional votes for Biden compared to Clinton.
A lot of this extra support actually came from the suburbs surrounding these urban centers, as voter turnout in the city of Milwaukee didn’t change much from 2016.
Even as Trump often spoke about “saving the suburbs,” polls showed his support was slipping in these areas, particularly among suburban women. This trend may have been the key to his loss in Wisconsin, Gilbert says.
“He was undone, I think, by his ongoing weakness in the suburbs,” Gilbert says. “Particularly, the inner suburbs around Milwaukee and Madison. That really came back to haunt him in this election, and we saw those votes shift just enough to flip the state back.”