Geographic And Demographic Trends Behind Joe Biden's Win In Wisconsin

Nov 10, 2020

Joe Biden edged out Donald Trump in Wisconsin’s presidential election by about 20,000 votes, according to unofficial results. Political scientists, pollsters and statisticians are now breaking down the vote to see how geography and demographics factored into the win.

Turnout in Wisconsin was up for both Republicans and Democrats — at nearly 3.3 million ballots. That exceeded the expectations of Marquette Law School Poll Director Charles Franklin, who spoke Monday during a meeting.

“Frankly, I had expected turnout to be about 3.1 [million],” he says. “And for our high turnout model, we pegged it at 3.2 [million]. And yet still, the actual turnout even exceeded that 3.2 million high turnout model. So, I think it's pretty impressive, especially when you consider the troubles of canvassing and door-knocking and things like that in an epidemic.”

Franklin says the two parties took different approaches in their get out the vote efforts, with Democrats operating for virtual campaigning and Republicans doing more in-person canvassing. But he says both succeeded in driving up votes.

“There's not a single county in the state in which Republican and Democratic votes didn't go up,” says Franklin. “In other words, no county had fewer Republican or Democratic votes than they had four years ago.”

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

With all these Wisconsinites voting, the map of which counties are red and which are blue looks pretty much the same as it did four years ago. Franklin says only two counties flipped in 2020 — Sauk and Door counties went from red to blue.

But Franklin describes a trend if you look at the margins and draw a diagonal from Green Bay to the Iowa/Minnesota corner.

“Southeast of that diagonal, most of the counties have been moving in a Democratic direction. Now, many of them are voting majority Republican, but the margins are getting smaller. And to the northwest of that, on that diagonal, most of the counties are moving in a Republican direction,” explains Franklin.

As a result, he says we’re seeing a geographic shift in the structure of the vote in the state, one that’s in the process of happening and not over with yet.

Voters in the gym of Riverside University High School on Milwaukee's East Side.
Credit Maayan Silver

In southeast Wisconsin, there’s been an interesting pattern in the WOW counties — namely Waukesha and Ozaukee, and less so Washington County. Republican margins have been shrinking, and not just in the presidential races. It’s also been happening in races for governor, Senate and supreme court justice.

“Just to give you an idea of how much has changed,” says Franklin. “In 2012, Ozaukee County gave a Republican majority by 16,900 votes. In 2016, that Republican majority was just over 10,000. And last week, it was about 7,400. So, it's dropped by almost 10,000 net votes over the last two presidential elections.”

In Waukesha, the percent change of the margin is not as dramatic, but it's still a pretty substantial drop of about 28,000 votes from 2012 to 2020.

Franklin appeared at Monday's meeting with Mike Gousha, journalist and Marquette public policy fellow. Gousha points out that within Milwaukee County, the suburbs tipped overwhelmingly for Joe Biden.

“There were only three communities in Milwaukee County, larger communities — Oak Creek, Franklin and Hales Corners — that went with President Trump in this election,” says Gousha. “And so you could see again, it's this shift that is occurring in the suburbs, the North Shore. There was a time not all that long ago, when a place like Whitefish Bay was sort of a battleground for Democrats and Republicans. That was not the case in this election.”

The suburbs are full of college-educated white people, a group that has become increasingly Democratic. And as Gousha points out, many women with college degrees were turned off by the president.

“But it'll be interesting to see next time if this erosion sort of continues over time, or whether Trump himself was sort of the guy who caused that erosion,” says Gousha. “And maybe it's not a commentary on Republican Party politics at large.”

Franklin says he’s not sure whether the trend in the suburbs was fueled by Republicans becoming less loyal to the party or Democrats now mobilizing and turning out in greater numbers.

“If you're used to losing elections 75-25, you might not bother to turn out. But if you see a ray of hope and you're now only losing them 60-40, that's a pretty strong motivation for that minority number of Democrats to turn out in bigger numbers and produce more competitive elections,” Franklin says.

When it comes to the city of Milwaukee, Franklin says overall turnout was roughly the same. But he attributes that to the predominantly white areas along the lakeshore.

“While we saw a rise in turnout along the shore, we saw a general modest but noticeable decline in turnout in the center of the city in the aldermanic wards that are majority or substantially Black or Hispanic, not a lot of decline, but a bit of decline," he says.

Franklin says to the surprise of analysts, the margins of victory for Biden were actually down 2-4 points in Black aldermanic districts and down about 7-8 points in Hispanic aldermanic districts. But he says Biden’s margin of victory in whiter neighborhoods made up for that.