With less than 2 weeks before the presidential election, Wisconsin is one of the most active swing states. Over 600,000 Wisconsinites have already voted through absentee ballots, with nearly 1.3 million ballots requested. Both the Trump and Biden campaigns have visited multiple times. Across the country, we know this is going to be an election to remember, but much of the nation will be watching Wisconsin closely.
Wisconsin has historically been an important state for both parties. Less than 23,000 votes separated Trump and Hilary Clinton in 2016. Prior to that, the state has voted blue in every presidential election since Ronald Reagan’s win in 1984. When you break down the state by county, and identify the democratic and republican margin of victories within each county, you can see the opportunity for both parties.
The intricacies of the state are great and complicated. Out of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, we have identified three key regions that will play an integral role in the upcoming 2020 presidential election: Milwaukee, Kenosha County, and Northeast Wisconsin (Brown County, Outagamie County, and Winnebago County). These regions provide us a better representation of the Wisconsin voter demographics in more focused areas. They also help us understand the policies that will have the biggest impact on the Wisconsin population.
Milwaukee is located in the Southeast region of Wisconsin, and makes up 16.54 percent of the entire Wisconsin 2016 population. Milwaukee County is the leader in population (954,841) and total voting population (441,053) within Wisconsin. It is the most metropolitan county within the state, and contains the most racial diversity. Milwaukee County’s 2016 racial demographics were 64.2 percent White, 27.2 percent Black, 4.7 percent Asian and 15.6 percent Hispanic/Latino.
Historically, Milwaukee County has always voted blue since the 2000 presidential election, but in 2016 Milwaukee saw a significant decrease in voter turnout. A total of 51,523 votes were lost in the 2016 election, vs 2012.
Although there are numerous factors that play into decreases in voter turnout, one primary factor that should be considered is Wisconsin’s 2011 Voter ID Law. The 2011 Wisconsin Act 23 requires all registered voters to present approved photo identification in order to cast a ballot. Acceptable forms of identification include: a Wisconsin driver’s license, a non driver identification card, photo ID issued by the US military, a US passport or passport card. Act 23 has faced many legal challenges since its enactment. In March 2015, it was announced the photo ID law would be enforced for all elections after April 7, 2015.
Act 23 appears to have had a large impact on Milwaukee County’s 2016 voter turnout. A survey of registered voters in Dane and Milwaukee Counties who did not vote in the 2016 presidential election found that 11.2 percent of eligible nonvoting registrants were deterred by Wisconsin’s voter ID law. Although overall voter turnout saw major decreases all across Wisconsin (-73,502) between the 2012 and 2016 election, Milwaukee County was hit the hardest, totaling a hefty 70 percent of all votes lost in 2016. Prior to the 2016 presidential election, Milwaukee County saw an increase in voter turnout (+64,639) between the 2008 to 2012 presidential election.
Act 23 hit communities of color within Milwaukee County the hardest, especially Black voters. Statewide, the Wisconsin residents with a valid drivers license is around 80 percent. However, for African-Americans, that drops to around 50 percent and below 50 percent for the hispanic community. For young adults (ages 18 through 24) even fewer minorities have valid drivers licenses to use for voter identification under the proposed legislation. Statewide, only 22 percent of young African American males and 34 percent of young African American females have a valid license. In contrast, about 64 percent of white males and 75 percent of white females have valid licenses.
Although many steps have been taken by Wisconsin leadership to ease the barriers for obtaining acceptable voter identification (like waiving fees), major barriers still exist for voters of color, and may not be enough to bring the voter turnout back up.
Voter suppression will play an important role in Milwaukee County’s voter turnout, especially considering the many restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Consider, the voter turnout in April 2020 which determined a hotly contested Wisconsin Supreme Court race and the state’s Democratic nominee for president, was 32 percent. The city of Milwaukee decided to close all but 5 of its 182 polling places. Milwaukee has announced that 173 polls will be open for the 2020 presidential election on November 3rd.
Kenosha County is located in the Southeast region of Wisconsin, and makes up 2.9 percent of the entire Wisconsin 2016 population. Kenosha County is ranked number 8 in size (167,867) and 8th in voter population. Kenosha County is located 2 counties south of Milwaukee county, in Southeast Wisconsin, which is directly north of the Illinois state border. Kenosha County is the 3rd most diverse county in the state.
With an extremely small Republican margin of victory of 0.31 percent, Trump’s 2016 win in the county was the first time since the 1972 presidential election that Kenosha County swung red. In 1972, Richard Nixon won both the county and the state. Given Kenosha’s historically blue voting history, their 2016 red swing poses a few questions. Mainly, why? Change in political landscape? Population and demographic growth?
Kenosha County’s population has been steadily growing over the past several decades, especially in the early 90s. The 2010 report on the Population of Southeastern Wisconsin, found that between 2000 and 2010, the county to county net migration from Northern Illinois counties of Cook (Chicago), Lake (Evanston), and McHenry to Kenosha County indicated an increased movement of 17,200 persons.
With Northern Illinois’ counties being largely democrat, as well as the metropolitan influence of Chicago, we can see how Kenosha County’s geographic location and migration data could be heavily reflected in this year’s voter turnout. Especially when considering the August shooting of Jacob Blake.
Kenosha made national headlines when unarmed Jacob Blake was shot by a police officer in the City of Kenosha. Of course, major protests flared and echoed the same rhetoric sparked earlier in the year in Minneapolis from the murder of George Floyd.
Although Kenosha County is only the 8th largest county in the state, it is the third most diverse of the ten largest counties within Wisconsin. In 2016, Kenosha County’s Black and Hispanic population made up 7.4 percent and 13.5 percent, respectively, of the total state population.
With over 20 percent of Kenosha’s population being people of color, critiques made of the Kenosha Police Department and police brutality in general resonated with the city, and an outburst of overwhelming action. Frustrations with the handling of the Jacob Blake case will be highly likely to be reflected in Kenosha County’s voter turnout. In early September, both President Trump and Joe Biden visited the City of Kenosha after the Jacob Blake shooting, in their own separate attempts of gaining support within the battleground region.
The voices of rural Wisconsin play a strong role in every election, given their large size and spread across the state. Of the top ten largest counties in Wisconsin, 3 of them are located in the Northeast: Brown County (4th largest), Outagamie County (6th largest), and Winnebago County (7th largest). The most notable cities in each county are: Green Bay, Appleton, and Oshkosh respectively. Together, these three counties make up 10.63 percent of the state’s 2016 total population. These three counties are reflective of the Northeast region as a whole, with largely homogenous opinions, voices, and demographics.
Northeast Wisconsin counties are considerably less metropolitan than Dane or Milwaukee County, but also less rural than its Northern counterparts, making them key targets for both sides of the aisle. Historically, Northeast Wisconsin is a very red region.
It’s not surprising that the red voting histories of these counties are reflected in their demographics. All three counties are predominantly white and have much smaller Black and Hispanic populations compared to Milwaukee or Kenosha. They do, however, have slightly larger Native American populations because of the several Native American reservations located in Northeast Wisconsin.
Where populations are the most dense, they tend to swing back and forth politically. Although this area is predominantly red, all three counties swung blue in the 2008 presidential election by fairly large margins, but since then, Brown and Outagamie have voted red for every subsequent presidential election. Winnebago remained with Obama in the 2012 election with a smaller margin of victory and went to Trump in 2016.
The three largest industries within the region are manufacturing, healthcare and social services. The large economic output generated by manufacturing jobs and other key industries are major platform issues for the area. Advanced manufacturing industries dominate the overall NE Wisconsin workforce, employing 25 percent of the workforce. Over $40M in total economic output for the region exists in the three counties. In 2016, one of Trump’s major platform promises was reviving manufacturing jobs across the Midwest, resonating widely with NE Wisconsin voters who sought security with their dependence on the industry.
After inauguration, Trump affirmed his promise by scrapping NAFTA for USMCA and sparking a trade war with China in an effort to centralize American blue collar workers. And this wasn’t lost on the rural Wisconsin population. Manufacturing employment in Wisconsin in the 2000s suffered major losses, but beginning in 2010 manufacturing began on a steady rise, particularly in Brown, Outagamie, and Winnebago. Under the Trump Administration, manufacturing in Wisconsin has been growing modestly (prior to the COVID-19 effects). In January of 2016, manufacturing job employment in Wisconsin was marked at 468.7 thousand employed. This rose to 483.4 thousand employed by January 2020. The message of manufacturing job growth paired with a platform that will continue to prioritize trade wars and China conflict, makes the Trump campaign more strongly resonate with Northeast Wisconsin voters.
In the end, a relatively small number of people, in a handful of states, will be the difference for the winning candidate. Wisconsin may prove to be the deciding state. Its electorate will be one of the most watched swing voting populations. From rural northeast counties to the inner city neighborhoods of Milwaukee, each of the candidates have the next two weeks to continue shouting their respective message and hope it resonates with all of these diverse groups.
It is clear that predictions didn’t work out well for the majority of pollsters in 2016, so we’ll refrain from making one. And although Biden is leading in the polls in Wisconsin, Trump has surprised us more than once in the past.
Hopefully sometime before the end of the year, we will be given the chance to calm our bated breath.
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