Wisconsin’s swing state of mind in the upcoming presidential election

The 2020 presidential election will be about Wisconsin.
Wisconsin state outline that's half red and half blue. The state is sitting on a swing set

The 2020 presidential election will be fought over the economy, particularly how trade policies have affected manufacturing and farming. It will highlight the growing urban-rural divide. And there will be a lot of attention paid to the political loyalties of blue-collar white voters.

In other words, it will be about Wisconsin.

Wisconsin has been in the eye of the storm in previous presidential campaigns. But the spotlight’s glare could be particularly intense this time. That’s because Wisconsin, due to its current demographics and economy, is a ready-made swing state in 2020. Political scientists couldn’t cook up a more perfect election scenario if they tried.

It’s also a matter of math and symbolism. Wisconsin was part of the famed “blue wall” that crumbled for Democrats in 2016 as Donald Trump won Pennsylvania, Michigan and the Badger State. If Democrats can flip Pennsylvania and Michigan, the president’s path to 270 electoral votes is narrow at best without Wisconsin.

Symbolically, Democrats still rue the failure of Hillary Clinton to visit Wisconsin in the weeks leading up to the 2016 general election. From their early efforts to rebuild the infrastructure in the state to the party’s decision to put on its national convention in Milwaukee in 2020, Democrats are indicating they won’t make that mistake again.

“If you line up the states where Trump is more popular than he is in Wisconsin, it does not add up to an Electoral College majority. And if you line up all the states where he’s less popular than he is in Wisconsin, it’s also not an Electoral College majority,” says Ben Wikler, chair of the state Democratic Party. “Wisconsin is the tipping-point state in the Electoral College.”

Wisconsin didn’t seem teed up to be a swing state leading up to the 2016 election. Barack Obama was coming off back-to-back wins in the state by 14 and 7 points, extending Democrats’ winning streak for Wisconsin’s electoral votes that began after Ronald Reagan won the state in 1984.

Meanwhile, Trump didn’t register above 42 points in the final four Marquette University Law School Polls leading up to the election. And he canceled a planned rally in Wisconsin the final weekend before the election, prompting questions about how seriously he was contesting the state.

But the Obama elections proved to be outliers, obscuring the fact that the Democratic nominee won the state’s electoral votes in 2000 by only 5,708 votes and in 2004 by a still narrow margin of 11,384 votes.

In between those Obama wins, Republican Scott Walker was swept into the governor’s office on a GOP wave. His changes to collective bargaining prompted a political battle that left deep divisions in the state.

“Our polarization in the state in 2011 and beyond certainly was a preview of the national polarization over Trump,” says Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University Law School Poll.

That polarization includes a hardening of the rural-urban divide that is now the hallmark of national politics as well.

In 2008, Wisconsin’s most populous counties, Milwaukee and Dane, accounted for 31.3% of Obama’s vote total in a statewide blowout. Ten years later, the two counties delivered 36.4% of Tony Evers’ total votes, contributing to his 29,227-vote win over Walker.

The results of that race are part of why national pundits are focusing on Wisconsin more than its fellow blue wall states of Michigan and Pennsylvania. Evers beat Walker by 1.1 points in what was viewed as a wave election favoring Democrats. But in Michigan, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer won the governor’s office by more than 9 points, while Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, also a Democrat, won reelection by 17.1.

Using his 2016 performance as a base, Trump could lose Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes and Michigan’s 16 and still win reelection so long as he holds onto Wisconsin as well as the other states he won. To give him some breathing room, Trump’s campaign has talked about competing in states such as Minnesota (with its 10 electoral votes), Colorado (9) and New Mexico (5).

But if Trump can’t win again in Wisconsin, he’s unlikely to hold onto both Michigan and Pennsylvania, given that those states are more diverse and Democratic. Minnesota, by the way, hasn’t backed a Republican for president since 1972, while Trump lost New Mexico by more than 8 percentage points and Colorado by nearly 5.

Mark Graul, a GOP strategist who was George Bush’s state director in Wisconsin for the 2004 campaign, sums it up: “If Trump can’t win Wisconsin, he can’t be president. That’s what’s different this time.”

JR Ross is the editor of WisPolitics.com. This is the first edition of Ross’ new monthly column for Madison Magazine.