In 2016, it was the results from Wisconsin that put Donald Trump over the top in the Electoral College vote count to secure the presidency for the Republican Party. The election outcome was stunning, not merely because few polls predicted a Trump victory, but because of the path to victory itself: the reliable Democratic strongholds of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—none had cast Electoral College votes for a Republican since Michigan did so in 1988—had flipped to the red column.
For Democrats, perhaps the quickest path back to the White House is to reclaim these Rust Belt states that narrowly voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016. Wisconsin is a crucial piece of this puzzle, and perhaps its biggest question mark. While Michigan and Pennsylvania elected Democratic governors during the 2018 midterm elections by comfortable margins—nearly 407,000 and 856,000 votes, respectively—the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Wisconsin in 2018 edged the Republican incumbent by fewer than 30,000 votes. For this reason, the Badger State will be critical in 2020—and it is imperative that primary voters familiarize themselves with the race before the election on April 7th.
Following the departure of a number of candidates immediately before and after Super Tuesday, former vice president Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders are now the only Democrats with a shot at securing the party nomination. However, forecasters currently project the most likely outcome of the Democratic primary process to be that no candidate wins a majority of pledged delegates before the July convention. Indeed, at this point, neither candidate can capture the nomination before Wisconsin votes. This means that Wisconsin and other late-voting states will be extremely pivotal in either (1) helping one candidate break through and win enough delegates to become the party nominee, or (2) shaping the media narrative and perceptions of “momentum” going into a brokered convention.
So what can we expect to see? Who has the edge in Wisconsin: Biden or Sanders?
Here are some key factors to consider as we look ahead:
- Demographics: Wisconsin is similar to the country as a whole in terms of education, age, and household income; however, Wisconsin is less racially diverse than the rest of the country. The state is approximately 85% white, compared to a national average of roughly 72%. On paper, these characteristics bode well for Joe Biden, who is himself from a similar state—Pennsylvania. Biden also tends to perform better among white primary voters than Sanders. However, Sanders has a strong electoral history in the region: he easily won Wisconsin’s 2016 primary with nearly 57% of the vote. The critical question, then, is whether Sanders can maintain the enthusiasm he generated four years ago when his opponent is surging after a major Super Tuesday victory.
- Polls: The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Elections Research Center found in its first poll of battleground states that Sanders has a double-digit lead in Wisconsin, with Biden a distant second at 13%. However, this survey was conducted before Super Tuesday, and Biden has likely closed this gap considerably, as he has done in nearby Michigan. Of course, polls are not forecasts, and a lot can—and likely will—change between now and when Wisconsin votes. Stay tuned for new polls in the coming weeks measuring what Wisconsinites are thinking! You can follow them here and here.
- Election rules: Wisconsin uses an open primary system that allows all registered voters to participate in the primary election if they choose. This is important because Sanders and Biden appeal to different types of voters. For example, Bernie Sanders draws much of his support from political independents; in Wisconsin, they are eligible to vote for him. Alternatively, Republicans concerned that Donald Trump will lose the election this fall may vote for the more ideologically moderate Biden to prevent the more liberal Sanders from possibly taking control of the White House. Of course, Republicans may also strategically vote in the Democratic primaries in an effort to nominate a weak general election opponent for President Trump.
- What to watch for: Turnout rates, especially in Milwaukee County. Dane Country, home to Madison, is a well-known Bernie Sanders stronghold, but in the 2016 primaries so was the rest of Wisconsin. The only county Hillary Clinton won that year was Wisconsin’s largest and most racially-diverse—Milwaukee County—and she only won there by about 7,000 votes. The city of Milwaukee then saw turnout rates drop from approximately 66% in the 2012 presidential election to 56% in 2016—this was likely a contributing factor to Clinton’s loss. In 2020, look to primary turnout rates as a gauge of enthusiasm for the slate of candidate options, and perhaps a predictor of whether or not turnout will increase in Wisconsin come November. Can Sanders continue his appeal to non-white voters and claim Milwaukee County this time? Can Biden, perhaps with some help from the recent endorsement by Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, solidify a coalition of non-white and more rural voters to give Sanders a run for his money across the state?
- Looking ahead: In 2012, Mitt Romney earned more votes in Wisconsin than Donald Trump earned in 2016, yet Trump won and Romney lost. This is because roughly 240,000 fewer Wisconsinites voted in the 2016 election. While vote choice is, of course, incredibly important, so too is the electoral choice that precedes it: whether to vote at all. Keep an eye on this statistic in both the primary and general elections.
- Winning delegates versus winning the narrative: Wisconsin’s significance in the 2020 primary process will likely mirror that of Iowa and New Hampshire: the delegates are important, but the bigger story will be one of momentum and viability. Democrats are eager to lure Wisconsin back into the blue column, and the winner of its primary will have a compelling case that they are the candidate that can do it.
- How do I vote in Wisconsin?: You can register to vote here. Wisconsin allows registration online or by mail up to 20 days before election. You can also register on Election Day in Wisconsin. More details about voter registration (such as required documentation) are available here.
Eric Loepp is a guest contributor for the RAISE the Vote Campaign. The views expressed in the posts and articles featured in the RAISE the Vote campaign are those of the authors and contributors alone and do not represent the views of APSA.
Eric Loepp (Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he teaches courses in American government, political behavior, and research methods. His research focuses on candidate evaluations and electoral decision-making, particularly in primary elections. This work has been published in such journals as Electoral Studies, the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion, & Parties, Research & Politics, American Politics Research, and PS: Political Science & Politics.