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Big margins in cities, gains in the suburbs: How Joe Biden won Wisconsin

Big margins in cities, gains in the suburbs: How Joe Biden won Wisconsin

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Connor Trader completes his ballot at the Orpheum Theatre polling place, on Election Day in Madison, on Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

One week ago, ABC News and the Washington Post released a poll that got some attention for predicting that Joe Biden would win the battleground state of Wisconsin by a margin of 17 percentage points.

The same week, a New York Times/Siena College poll had Biden up by 11 percentage points over Trump. CNN’s poll on Monday had Biden ahead by 10 points. 

Just like in 2016, they were all way off. 

"The idea that there would be a 17-point Biden lead in a state like Wisconsin in an election that is as polarizing as this one was absurd," said Republican strategist Brian Reisinger, a veteran of statewide campaigns.

Reisinger went a step farther and declared Wisconsin the "most evenly divided state in the country."

That argument was borne out Wednesday afternoon when the Associated Press called the state for Biden, who held a lead of just over 20,000 votes. That margin is less than one percentage point, well below even the relatively conservative five-point difference predicted last week by the Marquette University Law School poll. President Donald Trump's campaign immediately threatened to demand a recount as a handful of other key states remained too close to call.

In Wisconsin, Biden edged past the president by leveraging high turnout in Dane and Milwaukee Counties. Though Trump performed well beyond those areas, it was not enough.

Wisconsin upheld its reputation as an active, divided, battleground state with a record voter turnout of about 3.3 million — the most ever in the state —  which is at least 72% of the voting age population, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

Biden's success was due to motivating more voters in the state's two largest urban areas — Dane and Milwaukee counties — than Hillary Clinton did four years ago. He also improved on her numbers in three Republican-heavy counties — Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington — surrounding Milwaukee, according to unofficial returns.

Meanwhile, Trump fared better than he did in 2016 in the rural parts of the state, which buoyed him. With the record voter turnout, Trump got more votes than any other Republican candidate in the state's history and strategists say he propelled several down-ballot Republicans to victory. 

“The under-told story is in how good in raw numbers Trump did statewide as far as vote totals,” said Matt Batzel, Wisconsin-based executive director for American Majority Action, a conservative advocacy group that canvassed for Trump.  

Trump won Wisconsin in 2016 by running up the vote total in rural Wisconsin and activating largely non-college-educated white voters. That year, he also benefited from depressed Democratic turnout in urban areas. 

This year, Democratic turnout in Wisconsin’s urban centers surpassed that of four years ago.

Each campaign took a different approach to reaching Wisconsin voters. The Democrats spent a record amount on digital, TV and print advertising and bringing in celebrities for virtual events and concerts. But they gave up on establishing field offices throughout the state and did not canvas in-person due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Republicans also spent significantly, but not as much as the Democrats, opting to focus on a traditional ground game, with field offices and canvassers knocking on doors in person. Republican strategists say their in-person approach helped them, while Democrats say that Biden’s win shows their method was effective. 

“Biden won Wisconsin, so I think it's hard to criticize a winning strategy,” said Democratic consultant Sachin Chheda. 

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Election Officials and volunteers interact with voters outside of the University of Wisconsin - Madison Memorial Union polling place, on Election Day, on Tuesday, November 3, 2020.


When it comes to polling, both Republican and Democratic strategists agree: it’s a problem. 

“We’re going to have to do something so that the industry confronts another major national election in a row in which their data was not accurate enough to be totally useful,” Chheda said. 

Republican strategist Bill McCoshen called the polling “atrocious” and other Republicans, including Trump’s campaign, maintain that they are increasingly modeled to shape public opinion rather than reflect it. 

“Trump’s internal polls had him down 1 (percentage point) … turns out Trump's internals were spot on,” McCoshen said. “He ended up losing Wisconsin by 0.6 percent. Only one pollster came close to that, the Trafalgar Group. The Trafalgar group had Biden ahead by 1 percentage point.”

The firm was recently profiled in a New York Times piece, which wrote it was “considered far too shadowy by other pollsters to be taken seriously.” As for those other pollsters: “when you’re so far outside the margin of error, you’re either incompetent or you had a result in mind,” McCoshen said. 

Here are breakdowns of what happened in some of the state’s key voting regions. As in past years, the state’s rural/urban divide mostly fueled the chasm between Democrats and Republicans and this year the difference was even more pronounced.

“Democrats performed exceptionally well in Dane and Milwaukee counties and built a 364,263 margin just from those two counties,” McCoshen said. “Trump, on the other hand, in the other 70 counties, built a 343,747 vote margin, so that’s where the delta comes from.” 


Dane County is always a Democratic stronghold, but record turnout this year played a defining role in getting Biden across the finish line with nearly 85% of eligible voters casting 162,068 total ballots, a 13% increase from 2016. Turnout surpassed that of both Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2012.

Biden scored 260,157 votes to Trump’s 78,789 with all county precincts reporting. Of the county’s total votes cast, 62.4 percent were by absentee ballot.

“Biden’s win was built on continuing to grow the base in Dane County where we see population growth, and so we see more people and more voters and a higher margin for Democrats,” Chheda said. 

Some of the more suburban and rural areas surrounding Dane County also flipped to Biden and helped secure his win, said Melissa Baldauff, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Gov. Tony Evers. 

“If you look at some of the areas surrounding Dane County compared to 2016, Sauk County and some of those areas got a little bit bluer,” she said. It shows Dane County has had a ripple effect in the area that continues to extend further out, she said. 

In order to win in Wisconsin, Democrats need to win big in Dane County and Biden accomplished that. 

For Republicans, neutralizing Dane’s growth and increasingly high turnout will continue to be a hurdle.  

 “The big challenge for any Republican is offsetting Dane County (and) its growing demographics,” American Majority Action’s Batzel said. 

But while Dane remains critical for Democrats to win statewide, this year’s legislative races showed there “is no path for them to take (state) legislative majorities unless they can figure out how to do better in rural Wisconsin,” McCoshen said. 

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Voting booths are empty as election officials wait in line to process absentee ballots at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Union Tuesday morning.


Turnout for Democrats also increased here, with Biden scoring 28,454 more votes than Hillary Clinton did in 2016.

Biden won 69.13% of the vote with 317,251 votes to Trump’s 29.28%, or 134,355 votes. Improving significantly on Clinton’s 2016 performance in Milwaukee was identified by Democratic strategists as a key to victory in Wisconsin since nearly the day after the 2016 election, and Biden pulled it off.

The returns from the city of Milwakuee and its neighboring, more suburban communities, including Wauwatosa,  show just how important it is for Democrats to continue to drive up votes there, Baldauff said. 

“The Milwaukee area is always going to be such an important investment. It’s not just the city of Milwaukee, it’s really that ripple effect out,” she said.

“No one should discount at all the importance of work from groups like BLOC (Black Leaders Organizing for Communities)  and LIT (Leaders Igniting Transformation) in Milwaukee.  BLOC hit the ground pretty soon after the 2016 election and really did a lot of work to engage with voters,” she said. 

But turnout in the city of Milwaukee wasn’t as high as some had anticipated this year, despite ongoing canvassing there. 

“There is a real struggle post-Obama for Democrats in urban areas so that will be a challenge for them to motivate Milwaukee,” Batzel said.  


Trump fared worse in Waukesha County this year compared to 2016, but improved in Washington and Ozaukee in terms of raw votes, a trend Republican strategists say is due to long-term demographics shifts. People moving to affluent Milwaukee suburbs including Brookfield and Wauwatosa often come from urban areas rather than other suburbs and are bringing their liberal views with them, said Reisinger, caring more about social justice and climate change than lower taxes and law and order. He ascribed the election results in Waukesha County to that shift, more than specific dissatisfaction with Trump.

"It's a very challenging thing, but certainly Democrats have been trying to exploit their message ... to peel off young educated suburban women in a matchup between Biden and Trump," he said. 

In 2016, Trump received fewer votes in the WOW counties than Republican Mitt Romney did in 2012, despite Sen. Ron Johnson carrying the region. That year, Trump won Washington County by 40 points, Waukesha County by 27 points and Ozaukee County by 19, leading to “whispers of a slow political realignment due north of Milwaukee,” according to pre-election reporting from Politico. Given last night’s results, it seems to be an argument worthy of consideration.

When comparing the numbers overall, Trump didn’t do poorly in the “WOW” counties, McCoshen said, and he did better than expected in many rural counties. “Either way, it wasn't enough to cover the deficits in Dane or Milwaukee,” he said. 

In Waukesha County, Trump pulled in 159,633 votes in 2020 compared to 145,519 in 2016. Biden improved on Clinton’s performance in the county, taking in 103,867 votes compared to Clinton’s 79,199 in 2016.

In Ozaukee, Trump got 33,912 votes, compared with 30,458 in 2016. Biden improved from Clinton, taking in about 6,000 more votes to get to 26,515.

In Washington, Biden earned more votes than Clinton did in 2016, taking 26,647 votes compared to 20,854 four years ago. Trump also improved on his 2016 performance, taking in 60,235 in 2020 compared to 51,729 in 2016. 

Even though Biden lost across the three counties overall, Democratic wins in the Legislature there and the increase of Biden votes show that the area is becoming less red, Baldauff said. 

“I think that it is important to see that yes, Ozaukee and Waukesha counties are more red overall, (but) they are getting more purple,” said Baldauff.  “We’ve seen that trend over time in those areas. The demographics are changing a bit, they are getting some younger families in those areas and I think also some minds have been changed. The president has been begging for suburban women to love him and he didn’t do as well with the suburban women in the state.”  


Trump carried the Green Bay media market by 18 points in 2016. This time, Marquette University Law School director Charles Franklin had called the area a toss-up in the weeks leading up to the election.

It could be considered Wisconsin’s swing region. The area’s most populous counties — Brown, Outagamie and Winnebago — backed Trump in 2016, but Sen. Tammy Baldwin won them in 2018.

Trump edged out Biden there this year, taking 75,865 votes to Biden’s 65,509 in Brown County. Trump got more votes this year than in 2016 and Biden improved on Clinton’s performance there by 12,151 votes. 

In parts of Green Bay Trump helped buoy other state Republican candidates, including John Macco and David Steffen who retained seats there. Republicans were also able to flip Dave Hansen’s Democratic state Senate seat here, with Republican Eric Wimberger winning over Hanson’s nephew, Jonathon. 


Trump improved here from 2016, though Biden also pulled in more votes than Clinton did. Trump won the county with 44,972 votes, up from 36,025 in 2016. Biden took in 42,191 votes, over Clinton’s 35,770.

“Going back to 2016, the Kenosha and Racine counties are an area where Republicans have struggled,” Batzel said, noting the gains Trump has continued to make there. 

It is important to look back at 2018, when Wisconsin elected Tony Evers and set the stage for 2020. Evers won the county with 50.7% of the vote to Walker’s 46.3%, said Baldauff. 

It makes sense to compare presidential election to presidential election, but a lot of what happened in 2020 could be seen coming in 2018’s statewide midterm elections, she said. 

“A lot of really important things happened in 2018 and I think you see evidence of that, not just in Wisconsin but in Michigan as well,” Baldauff said. 


Biden took this western county, but Trump improved his performance in the area slightly over 2016, with 28,661 votes compared to 26,384. Biden again improved over Clinton, getting about 5,000 more votes, or 37,817 compared to her 32,402 in 2016. The county also launched Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Ron Kind to another term.

The results here are another example of some western, suburban parts of the state becoming more blue.

“It used to be Madison was more surrounded by more red territory, but now even the suburbs are blue,” Chheda said. That dynamic has extended to Western parts of the state, as well, he said. 


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Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.

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