Close Presidential Race Once Again Shows Wisconsin Plays 'Pivotal Role' As Swing State

Nov 4, 2020

Editor's note: This piece was published before the Associated Press declared Joe Biden the winner of Wisconsin. Currently, President Donald Trump's campaign is requesting a recount for the state.    

Wisconsin has always been a swing state to watch as a potential game-changer in the race for president. While the state’s voter trends have historically been unpredictable, it's had a stretch of Democratic wins in the past few decades.

This streak was broken by the surprise win of Donald Trump in the 2016 election despite polling data never predicting him winning the state. Wisconsin ended up split nearly down the middle with just over 47% voting for Trump and 46.5% voting for Hillary Clinton.

Thomas Holbrook, the Wilder Crane professor of government at UW-Milwaukee, notes that Wisconsin has been a key state throughout past elections, especially when they're close — and 2020 is certainly a close race.

“As long as there is an Electoral College and as long as Wisconsin is, you know, kind of a toss-up state, sometimes Republican sometimes Democratic, it’s going to play that pivotal role,” says Holbrook.

He says the difference from 20 years ago is that Wisconsin now follows the trends of national politics much closer. In years like 2008, the state went more Democratic as Barack Obama was elected and Democrats took the House and Senate. In years like 2016, it followed toward Republicans and elected Trump and a Republican House and Senate. 

As of Wednesday morning, Joe Biden holds just over a 20,000 vote or 0.7 point lead over Trump. Holbrook says the outstanding ballots are in La Crosse County and the cities of Green Bay, Milwaukee and Kenosha. All places that he expects to favor Biden.

Polling consistently had Biden up by 4 to 8 points in Wisconsin. Like in 2016, there are now questions of how the result can look different than the polls. The current results are within the margin of error of some polls, but Holbrook thinks this may mean polling could need to further adapt to Wisconsin.

“If [Biden] ends up winning or losing by a percentage point, well, that tells us that there’s probably some fine-tuning to do in terms of how you poll in Wisconsin,” he says. "From my perspective, it's an opportunity to learn more."

The Wisconsin results by county show the state as majority red. Holbrook notes that these counties fall along different ideological lines and are typically very conservative places that see race relations, the coronavirus and global warning as smaller issues. In blue counties like Milwaukee and Madison, you get just the opposite.

However, "in some ways the map's not really fair because it's not a simple dichotomy. There are counties that are barely red or blue," says Holbrook.

>> 2020 Wisconsin General Elections Results

Wisconsin state law prevents the counting of absentee ballots until Election Day. But with such a big push of absentee voting due to the coronavirus pandemic, the system has been taxed even more. Holbrook says there is no obvious advantage to either party to drag out absentee ballot counting, but the chances to change the protocol could depend on this election.

"I guess we'll see what happens here in Wisconsin. I suppose the Legislature and the governor could get together and change that. But if not, I certainly expect that absentee voting will continue to be more popular than it has been," he says.

No matter how long it takes to count the country's votes, Holbrook says the American political landscape has ultimately changed under Trump's presidency with increased polarization.

"[He's] really sort of ignited a lot of excitement among mostly white people with lower levels of education. People who maybe in previous elections wouldn't turn out to vote or they might have leaned Republican but not with quite the enthusiasm," he notes. "At the same time, support for Democrats for non-white groups has not really gone up under the Trump administration."

Especially if Trump doesn't get elected, Holbrook says intra-party politics among Republicans will be something to watch. "It will be interesting to see what happens within the Republican Party because there could just be sort of open warfare between the [Trump wing] versus the more moderate wing," he says.