In battleground Wisconsin, an electoral win by 21,000 votes, roughly the population of Middleton, came along different paths for Democrat Joe Biden this year compared with President Donald Trump in 2016.
Biden’s path wound its way through the state’s largest urban centers of Milwaukee and Madison, mid-size cities of Green Bay, Eau Claire and La Crosse, the Milwaukee suburbs, and through the state’s rural heart.
“It’s such a tiny difference between the last election, albeit at much higher levels for both sides,” said Republican strategist and former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen. “I’m not sure that there’s a whole lot of things that made that difference. You can’t point to one thing and go, ‘That’s what got you the 22,000 votes you needed to win.’”
According to final unofficial returns, Biden won the state by fewer than 21,000 votes, a margin of 0.6 percent. Trump also won the state in 2016 by less than one percentage point, with less than a 23,000-vote lead over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
This year’s presidential election is the fourth time in six presidential elections that the state was decided by less than a point.
Turnout in Wisconsin this year was higher across the state.
About 3.2 million Wisconsinites voted in this year’s presidential election, a record for the raw vote and coming up just shy of the record for turnout as a percentage of eligible voters set in 2004.
Some key takeaways from Biden’s victory are that statewide elections continue to be very close (with the exception of former President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 wins) and that the urban-rural divide appears here to stay.
Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki agreed with Jensen that there wasn’t one factor determining the race. If he had to pick something, Zepecki said the most likely factor was that Trump was an incumbent president with a record.
“People were ready for change,” he said.
One of the first places where Biden increased his performance over Clinton was in Milwaukee County, where he widened the gap with Trump by more than 3 percentage points over Clinton.
That translated into a net lead of 182,896 votes over Trump, a net increase of 20,143 votes over Clinton’s 162,753 lead over Trump in 2016.
A data analysis by Marquette Law School researcher John D. Johnson in the publication Urban Milwaukee shows Biden outperformed Clinton in areas of the city with higher white populations while significantly underperforming Clinton in places that have a majority Hispanic or Latino population.
Milwaukee’s advantage was mirrored in the Democratic stronghold of Dane County where, like Milwaukee, Biden increased total turnout and his total margin over Trump for an additional 34,946 votes over Clinton’s edge in 2016.
“In terms of being able to win a state legislative majority, the Republicans don’t need to even think about Dane County, but in terms of their ability to win a statewide election, such as the presidential election, the Republicans do have a serious Dane County problem, because the population is booming in that county and along with the population boom, you’re seeing growing margins that favor Democratic candidates — in this case Biden,” said Anthony Chergosky, a UW-La Crosse assistant professor of political science.
Outside Milwaukee and Madison, continuing decline of GOP support in the conservative Milwaukee suburban counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington was another determining factor.
In Ozaukee County, Trump’s lead decreased by nearly 7 percentage points; in Washington County by 2; and in Waukesha by nearly 6. Biden netted 7,750 more votes than Clinton in those three counties.
Other areas of the state also posed challenges for Trump, such as the yawning Democratic lead in the Eau Claire and La Crosse areas. In both counties, Biden’s lead over Trump increased by nearly 4 percentage points.
Of the 59 counties that Trump won in 2016, Trump lost just two of them: Sauk County, northwest of Madison, and Door County, in northeastern Wisconsin.
In those 57 counties Trump held onto this year, Trump made improvements in his overall margin in 39 of them. Trump also gained 3 points this year in Kenosha County, a place where he visited and where civil unrest erupted after the police shooting of Jacob Blake.