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Breaking Down Wisconsin's Statewide 2020 Election Results

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Scott Olson
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Patrons at the Whiskey Ranch Bar and Grill watch as election returns are broadcast on Nov. 3 in Janesville, Wis.

On Wednesday, Joe Biden won Wisconsin, gaining its 10 electoral votes. But once again, the race was very close, with the unofficial results giving Biden the lead by about 20,000 votes. This is a familiar scenario to what we saw in the 2016 election when President Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by roughly the same margin. 

Wisconsin is historically decided by a razor-thin margin — this would be the fourth time in six presidential elections that the state was decided by less than 1% of votes, according to Craig Gilbert, political reporter and Washington bureau chief for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

With about more than 72% of voting-age adults participating, "this election was the second-highest turnout rate we've had in modern times after the 2004 election," says Gilbert. Biden's win came down to party performance in individual counties and the overwhelming amount of early and absentee voting. 

He says absentee voting was really uncharted territory, especially since Wisconsin is one of the most challenging states in the country to predict voter habits with only geographic patterns of the absentee vote to go on. 

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Despite Biden securing the state's electoral votes, Wisconsin had "a really disappointing cycle for Democrats," who had only modest inroads in the state Assembly.

>>2020 Wisconsin General Election Results

President Trump kept or improved his hold on the counties he won in 2016, "and I wasn't sure that would happen," Gilbert admits. "I just thought it was a tremendous political challenge ... for him to maintain, to hold that ground. I thought that some of these counties or more of these counties would snap back a little bit."

Some erosion of Democratic strongholds like Milwaukee and Madison into surrounding suburbs was expected. "Turned out that the erosion [Trump] suffered was greater than his modest gains in these areas of strength that he had in rural Wisconsin," says Gilbert.

The WOW counties

The WOW counties — Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington — have always played a big part in the political dynamic in  Wisconsin. They also typically deliver big turnout and big margins for Republicans, according to Gilbert. Trump underperformed in these counties in 2016, and 2020 saw Ozaukee and Waukesha counties lose ground again.

"It's a challenge nationally for the Republicans," notes Gilbert. "The wrinkle in Wisconsin is that some of these suburban areas are much more Republican than they are in other places, and so it's dramatic to see them slipping and not delivering the same margins — that's a big deal."

Dane County

Dane County, which includes the capital city of Madison, also played a big role in securing Biden's hold on the state.

"The combination of Madison becoming more and more mobilized politically, and then these suburbs in Dane County going from purple to blue and bluer. Every cycle now, it seems like Dane County is getting bigger and bluer and contributing even more to the Democratic performance statewide ... and those are votes that Republicans have to kind of make up somewhere else in the state," Gilbert explains.

Dane County is one of the few places Clinton did better than Barack Obama did, with 140,000 votes compared to his 130,000. This year, Biden secured 180,000 votes, which Gilbert says was enough to flip the election in Wisconsin.

Milwaukee County

The city of Milwaukee had 170,000 absentee ballots, mostly by mail but also early votes that many suspected would be overwhelmingly Democratic, according to Gilbert. 

In 2016, Milwaukee was seen as a big contributor to Clinton's defeat because of lower voter turnout. But 2020's turnout was the same as in 2016, says Gilbert. Though, the absentee vote did play an important role this year.

"Milwaukee played this sort of dramatic rescue roll for Joe Biden because of the vagaries of the absentee vote and the drama of waiting for it when Joe Biden was behind and having it catapult him into the lead," he explains.

"Milwaukee played this sort of dramatic rescue roll for Joe Biden because of the vagaries of the absentee vote and the drama of waiting for it when Joe Biden was behind and having it catapult him into the lead."

The final state tally had Biden leading by about 20,000 votes, which is a slim enough margin for President Trump to request a recount. But will this make a difference? Gilbert says no.

>>Biden Wins Wisconsin, Trump To Call For Recount

"I think we have a lot of history to go on, that we've just never seen recounts come even remotely close to changing that kind of a margin," he notes. "They change dozens of votes, but not even hundreds of votes, much less thousands of votes."

So, where does the 2020 election leave state Democrats and GOP leaders? 

"There's a lot going on on both sides because it's always a battle in Wisconsin, it's so evenly divided and the parties have kind of almost symmetrical strengths and weaknesses. The strength and the gains that Republicans are making in the rural areas, the flipside of that is the Democrats' erosion.

"And it's important for Democrats to try and figure out how to be more competitive in those parts of the state. Because if they're not they have no margin of error and then they just are absolutely reliant on big turnouts in Milwaukee and Madison just to be competitive in a state-wide race," Gilbert says.

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Audrey is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.