How Wisconsin Reflects the Nation’s Politics: “Both Sides Approach It Nervously”

Paul Ryan and Donald Trump in Green Bay.

From an earlier About Editing and Writing post about Wisconsin’s role as a swing state in presidential elections (I grew up in Wisconsin so follow its politics with added interest):

A case can be made that Wisconsin is good proxy for the nation’s politics—its voters have elected a balance of Democrat and Republican candidates that seem to reflect what’s going on nationally. And much like the country’s politics, the outcome in Wisconsin is often decided by the split between urban and non-urban voters. Not urban and rural, as big city journalists like to describe it, but urban (Milwaukee and Madison) and non-urban (mostly cities such as Green Bay, many with over 50,000 population).

Like much of the country in 2016, Wisconsin’s big cities voted Democratic and the rest of the state voted Republican.

In 2016, one of the shocks to the Hillary Clinton campaign was losing Wisconsin. Clinton had seemed to take the state for granted, not campaigning there, apparently thinking that the word out of Madison and Milwaukee represented all the state’s voters.

When the votes were counted, Clinton came out of Madison and Milwaukee with a 310,000 vote lead but voters in the smaller cities gave Trump a 337,000 edge and Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes. A similar voting pattern in Michigan gave Trump its 16 electoral votes and those two Trump wins, along with close wins in Pennsylvania and Florida, sent him to the White House.

In April, when President Trump visited Wisconsin, he went to Green Bay, known as Titletown USA, the home of the Green Bay Packers, the state’s most popular sports team. His unspoken message: The Democrats can win Milwaukee, the state’s biggest city, and Madison, the state’s capitol and home of the liberal state university, but we can win the rest of the state and its electoral votes.

From a Sunday Washington Post explainer by Dan Balz headlined “The 2020 electoral map could be the smallest in years. Here’s why.”

Wisconsin has seen a notable shift in voting patterns over the past decade, changes that Trump accelerated in 2016. As Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote shortly after the 2018 elections, “Most Wisconsin voters live in places that are trending in one political direction or the other. But the state persists as a partisan battleground because all those regional shifts over the past two decades have somehow canceled each other out.”

Northwestern Wisconsin has become more deeply entrenched as Republican territory, while southeastern Wisconsin has become less friendly to the GOP. The city of Milwaukee and Dane County, home to Madison and the University of Wisconsin, remain the biggest and most important vote producers for the Democrats. Counties in the southwest and along the Mississippi shifted to Trump in 2016 but could move back to Democrats next year.

In 2016, Clinton suffered a falloff in the Milwaukee media market that was about double that of the state as a whole. Much of that erosion was concentrated in African American precincts in the city of Milwaukee. Combined with Trump’s big margins in the northwestern part of the state, that was enough to doom her chances.

Where Democrats see particular opportunities — and Republican see reasons to worry — are in three Republican counties in suburban Milwaukee: Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington. Dubbed the “WOW counties,” all still favor Republicans, but Democrats have been gaining in their share of the vote.

“Those counties are still voting Republican, but as much as 16 points less on the margin now than they were,” said Charles Franklin, who conducts the Marquette University Law School poll.

Brian Reisinger, a Republican strategist, said the Democratic growth in those suburban areas in 2018 was “a real wake-up call for people to see there was a way for our traditional coalition to not be quite enough.”

Both sides approach Wisconsin nervously. Republicans see the dangers but are more unified behind the president than they were in 2016. Democrats elected a governor — Tony Evers — in 2018, but narrowly. Then they lost a state Supreme Court race in the spring that they expected to win.

“We underperformed,” said a veteran Democratic strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “We have to get smarter about how we do our work.”

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