In battleground Wisconsin, the 2020 election came very close to being a replay of Donald Trump’s surprise victory four years ago.
Trump was strong in the same places. He was weak in the same places. He won almost all the same counties, often by the same margins.
In 2016, his extraordinary strength in small counties made up for his weakness in big counties.
But in 2020, his weakness in big counties undid him.
A net shift of fewer than 44,000 votes was the difference.
And that shift occurred principally in the city of Madison, the Madison suburbs and the suburban communities within Milwaukee County.
It also occurred – on a smaller scale – in the suburban counties of Waukesha and Ozaukee, the Fox Valley counties of Brown, Outagamie and Winnebago, and the counties of La Crosse, Eau Claire and Rock.
These are all among the state’s most populous places.
Four years ago, it was rural counties turning red (or getting redder) that decided the election, a less than 1-point victory for Trump.
This time it was mostly blue places getting bluer that decided the election, a Joe Biden victory by almost the same margin.
2016 was realigning: 23 of 72 counties flipped, all from blue to red.
2020 was reinforcing: only two small counties flipped (Door and Sauk), in this case from red to blue.
Trump’s great electoral accomplishment in 2016 was vastly outperforming previous Republican nominees in small towns and rural Wisconsin and in the great expanse of the state beyond the Milwaukee and Madison media markets.
His great accomplishment in 2020 was preserving those remarkable gains and even modestly building on them. “Trump Country” did not swing back. Nor did Wisconsin’s 23 “Obama-Trump” counties, only two of which voted for Biden. Even in swingy western Wisconsin, Trump performed as well as he did in 2016 – outside the blue islands of La Crosse and Eau Claire.
The president delivered his base. These rural counties saw the biggest growth in turnout anywhere in Wisconsin.
But Trump’s winning 2016 blueprint came with a very small cushion, and couldn’t survive more serious erosion in the state’s population centers.
Trump’s margins worsened in each of Wisconsin’s seven largest counties – counties that make up half the vote.
Where did that roughly 43,000-vote statewide shift come from (the difference between winning by just under 23,000 in 2016 and losing by just over 20,000 in 2020)?
Where Biden turned Wisconsin
It came above all from three places:
The city of Madison. Hillary Clinton won Madison by 63 points and about 97,000 votes. Biden won Madison by about 70 points and almost 113,000 votes. That’s a net gain for Democrats of almost 16,000 votes.
The Madison suburbs. Clinton won the rest of Dane County by 32 points and about 49,000 votes. Biden won these mostly suburban voters by 37 points and about 68,000 votes. These are blue suburbs getting bluer (and increasing in population). They generated a net gain for Democrats of more than 19,000 votes.
The Milwaukee County suburbs. Setting aside the city of Milwaukee, Clinton won the rest of Milwaukee County by 10 points and more than 19,000 votes. Four years later, Biden won the same turf by 17 points and almost 37,000 votes. That’s a net gain for Democrats of more than 17,000 votes.
Trump carried three of these 18 communities, but Biden outperformed Clinton in every municipality in Milwaukee County. And his most important gains were in the suburbs, not in the city.
Overall city turnout did not increase from 2016, despite the efforts of Democrats to fix the turnout problem that contributed to Clinton’s defeat. Clinton won the city by about 143,000 votes. Biden won it by about 146,000. The city provided the election drama with its overnight tally of absentee ballots but didn’t contribute very much to the overall election swing in Wisconsin.
Suburbs like Wauwatosa did. Biden won Wauwatosa by 34 points and almost 11,000 votes. Clinton had won it by 22 points and 6,277 votes. From 2016 to 2020, the Democratic margin improved by 11 points in Fox Point, 10 points in Brown Deer, 10 points in Hales Corners, 9 points in Bayside and Whitefish Bay, 8 points in Glendale and West Allis, and 7 points in Shorewood, Greenfield, St. Francis and Greendale.
Add these three areas together — Madison, its suburbs, and the suburbs in Milwaukee County — and you get a total swing away from Trump of more than 52,000 votes, far more than Biden needed to win.
More modest Democratic inroads occurred elsewhere, such as the Republican outer suburbs – one of the few places in Wisconsin where Trump did worse in 2016 than Mitt Romney had in 2012.
The slippage continued in 2020. Trump’s winning margin in Ozaukee County dropped from 19 points in 2016 to 12 in 2020. His winning margin in Waukesha County dropped from 27 to 21 points. His winning margin in Washington County dropped slightly from 40 to 38 points (but Washington generated a bigger Trump vote margin this time because of higher turnout).
The Republican vote margin in the combined “WOW counties” was almost 8,000 votes smaller this time for Trump. The GOP erosion in the “WOW” that has gotten so much attention has now occurred in 2016, 2018 and 2020. It contributed to Trump’s defeat. But it didn’t contribute nearly as much as Democratic Dane County and the Milwaukee County suburbs did.
Trump Country stayed Trump Country
When you widen the lens, you see that the Milwaukee and Madison media markets moved away from the president while western, central and northern Wisconsin either stood pat or became a little more pro-Trump.
Trump did a bit better than before in the Wausau and La Crosse media markets. He won the Green Bay media market by a slightly smaller margin than in 2016 but netted more votes because of the rise in turnout.
Within these pro-Trump regions, though, rural and metropolitan areas were trending in opposite directions. In the west, Trump did worse than before in Eau Claire and La Crosse counties, which voted Democratic by modestly larger margins. In the northeast, he did worse than before in Brown, Outagamie and Winnebago counties, which voted Republican by modestly smaller margins.
But in many smaller counties, Trump’s numbers were quite similar to 2016. That’s notable because those 2016 numbers were historically great for a Republican.
And in 13 small counties, Trump’s margins were at least 3 points better than they were four years ago. Because of their size, however, they generated a net gain for the GOP of less than 10,000 votes. Dane County by itself generated a vote shift toward Democrats of almost 35,000 votes.
Among the 58 Wisconsin counties carried a second time by Trump were Richland, Juneau, Sawyer and Marquette. These four were among only 19 counties in the U.S. that have voted for the winning president every time since 1980.
Should Biden win the Electoral College in 2020, that streak will end for all four.
Craig Gilbert has covered every presidential campaign since 1988 and chronicled Wisconsin’s role as a swing state at the center of the nation’s political divide. He has written widely about polarization and voting trends and won distinction for his data-driven analysis. Gilbert has served as a writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a Lubar Fellow at Marquette Law School and a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where he studied public opinion, survey research, voting behavior and statistics. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @WisVoter.
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