Wisconsin went for Biden, but a closer look at the votes reveals some deeply entrenched problems.
We’re at the end of the election season that never seemed to stop, and it’s time to see where the chips have fallen. The General Election season was overwhelmingly characterized by anxiety about who would win, but now that it’s over we can start to parse out what happened in the federal, state, and local races. In what’s been called a historic election, there isn’t much change to the state of things in Wisconsin. While Trump’s out, Congress is at an impasse, with the Supreme Court tipped to the right. Wisconsin politics remain at something of a stalemate, as Republicans can still obstruct Governor Tony Evers through both the legislature and the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
The political hellscape we find ourselves in won’t be resolved by just electing people or hoping to have smarter policy. Even with the rigged game that is Wisconsin state politics, the changes we’re looking for follow the activity of ordinary people organizing with one another, starting to do what needs to be done, and not waiting for politicians to give permission. That can’t be by “play to the middle, say nothing” politics that have become standard liberal fare. “I’m not that guy” failed for years against Walker, and nearly just lost against Trump too. Working people in Wisconsin have real problems that more of the same won’t fix.
Turnout and presidential results
First, turnout in Wisconsin went from 2.98 million in 2016 to 3.3 million in 2020, an increase of 11%. Trump’s approval rating has hovered around 48% nationally, which paralleled his national vote share of…47.3%. Like the rest of the country, Trump still managed to grow his total votes in Wisconsin with higher turnout: 1.61 million in 2020 vs. 1.4 million in 2016. Biden squeaked by with about 20,000 votes to carry him forward: Biden took 1.63 million votes compared to Hillary Clinton’s 1.38 in 2016.
A stark difference was the third-party vote. Democrats kicked the Greens off the ballot in September. In 2016, Jill Stein of the Green Party won 31,000 votes—that was effectively wiped out in 2020. Certainly not all of those voters went for Biden, though it is close to the 20,000-vote margin that Biden won by.
At the same time, it seems much more likely that right third-party voters shifted their allegiances to Trump. In 2016, Libertarian Gary Johnson received 106,674 votes, compared to Jo Jorgenson’s 38,415 in 2020. Same thing for the Constitution Party, which shed 7,000 votes this election cycle. Without any suppression of their parties, it seems that the lower yields for the smaller conservative parties was the result of a transfer to the Republicans. Here’s a statewide breakdown of 2016 and 2020, from the Associated Press:
Voter turnout was historic for Wisconsin, but not in Milwaukee. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes: “in Milwaukee, nearly 247,700 people voted, about the same as in 2016…. in majority-Black wards, Biden did worse than Clinton, picking up about 5,100 fewer votes than Clinton did in wards where at least 50% of residents were Black. Turnout was down by about the same amount in those wards.” This pairs with a report from 2017, which noted: “Turnout among black voters in Wisconsin dropped about 19 percent in the 2016 election from 2012, more than four times the national decline.” In sum, Biden did worse than Clinton with Milwaukee’s Black and Latinx voters, many of whom just stayed home.
In Kenosha County, which has been in the national spotlight since police shot Jacob Blake in front of his children and militia teen Kyle Rittenhouse shot and killed protestors, Trump increased his share of the vote. In 2016, Kenosha County narrowly preferred Trump 46.85% to Clinton 46.52%. In 2020, Trump took a majority with 50.71% to Biden’s 47.57%.
In Madison, 161,693 were cast in the presidential election in 2020 compared to 153,267 votes in 2016. The statistics alone don’t really help us get a sense of what happened. Though most wards had modest changes, the real swings were confined to a few places in the city. The student vote collapsed: the largely student wards, 54 to 59, cast half as many votes in 2020 as they did in 2016 (9,375 v 4,600). The Daily Cardinal has an analysis that puts the student vote into broader perspective. That lapse in student votes was made up by overall higher turnout in the city, and by a few districts in particular. Three wards in Madison nearly doubled their vote count since the last election: wards 23 and 24 on the far east side along 151 by East Towne Mall (+1,070 votes), and ward 107 on the far west side along the Beltline (+1,481 votes).
All’s not well in Dane County
Dane County went overwhelmingly for Biden in the presidential race with 75.5% to Trump’s 22.9%. Trump only won three areas in the county: the small Dane County portion of Edgerton (28 Biden to 38 Trump); Town of Dane (244 to 333); and Vienna (503 to 506). That shows a significant minority that’s often not talked about in local politics, and that plays an important role in close statewide races: about 79,000 people voted for Trump in the county. Where did those votes come from? Even though 84% of Madison voted for Biden, it was actually the source of a third of Dane County’s votes for Trump. Sun Prairie (7.4%), Waunakee (4.2%), Fitchburg (4.1%) and Middleton (3.42%) are the next largest sources of Trump votes.
In Madison, the ballot was largely limited to uncontested Democrats or what would amount to non-contests with minor Republicans, and sure-to-win ballot measures for school funding. Every partisan county position (clerk, treasurer, district attorney, register) was uncontested. Many people simply don’t bother voting in these races—in 2016 a quarter of voters who cast ballots in the presidential election didn’t bother filling in the circle for an uncontested county-wide race.
Democrats won every seat up for election in Dane County, save for the Senate 14th, a gerrymandered district spanning multiple counties – but the wards in Dane County still went blue. That makes Dane County effectively a one-party state. This isn’t without its conflict. The August primary was where internal contests were played out, particularly in the Senate 26th and Assembly 77th. Following the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, there was an informal campaign to write-in Tony Robinson as district attorney in place of sitting DA Ismael Ozanne. Overall, there were a surprisingly large number of write-ins: 6950, or 2.5% of total, up from 1.8% in 2016 (4,221). Were the write-ins BLM-related? Maybe.
It’s hard to say definitively since a write-in by definition can be anything. Roughly half the write-ins were from Madison, and the surrounding areas (Sun Prairie, Monona, Middleton, Fitchburg, Verona, and Waunakee) made up another quarter of the write-ins. Whether it was in solidarity with BLM or more emphatically pro-police, it seems reasonable to assume that most of the write-ins for District Attorney were responding to how the local government responded to protests and incarceration.
What’s the result of this election with a view from Dane County? To quote president-elect Biden, “Nothing will fundamentally change.” The state legislature roughly maintained its political composition: Republicans lost two seats in the Assembly but gained two in the Senate. They won’t have a veto-proof majority when redistricting comes, but they’ve got all kinds of tricks up their sleeves with the help of the Supreme Court. Since the Legislature holds the purse strings for the county and many public services, it’s unlikely we’ll see a shift in policy priorities.