Wisconsin a Battleground Growing More Solid for Biden

October 17, 2020 by Dan McCue
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden participates in a town hall with moderator ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON – With fewer than 20 days to go until in-person voters head to the polls, nearly all indications are that the battleground state of Wisconsin is going solidly for former Vice President Joe Biden on Election Night.

Not only does the latest Heartland poll show Biden leading his Republican rival, President Donald Trump, 53% to 43% — with a solid 51% saying they will definitely vote for the Democrat — but reports of dissention have emerged from the Trump camp, where campaign advisers have been disagreeing on how much attention to pay to the state at this point.

The issue leading to raised voices behind the scenes is an advertising buy in Wisconsin amounting to about $130,000, as first reported by Axios, based on information from Advertising Analytics of Alexandria, Va.

“Too little too late,” the nay-sayers contend, pointing out that none of the scenarios for Trump reaching 270 Electoral College votes promulgated by campaign manager Bill Stepien include Wisconsin in their formulations.

Yet despite the polls, and the pessimism among his campaign staff, Trump entered this weekend determined to make a Saturday campaign stop in the Badger State despite health officials warning him away due to a record number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

As of this writing, he was still scheduled to deliver remarks “supporting law enforcement” at Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport in Janesville, Wis., Saturday evening.

And it was just a week ago that David Schultz, distinguished professor of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., suggested the whole presidential contest could come down to just one or two Wisconsin counties — Milwaukee County and Brown County.

What goes on in the land of cheese curds and beer?

For answers, The Well News turned to Dr. Paul Nolette, chair of the Department of Political Science at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis.

“The one thing I can tell you with certainty is it doesn’t appear anyone has given up on the state,” Nolette said. “We’re seeing lots and lots of ads and lots and lots of political coverage.

“Now, it would perhaps be even crazier, right now, absent COVID, but nevertheless, driving around my neighborhood, there’s a palpable sense of things heating up,” he continued. “I mean, you’re seeing Trump and Biden signs right next to each other, and neighbors putting up signs as close to the line of their property as they can, in hopes of cancelling out or at least competing with their neighbor’s support for the other candidate.

“So it’s like the battle of yard signs and that sort of thing going on. And it’s been busy,” he said.

Wisconsinites and Elections

It most respects, this kind of frenetic activity is typical for Wisconsin around election time, Nolette said.

“I don’t know that I’d say Wisconsinites love elections, necessarily, but they certainly get engaged,” he said. “Turnout here is traditionally one of the highest among any of the states, but what we’ve seen lately is a trend toward people getting very fired up about elections.

“Two years ago, with the midterm elections, we saw the highest turnout in decades for a midterm election, and it appears, anecdotally at least, there might even be more engagement this year,” he said.

“Remember, Wisconsin has been a swing state for some time, with the outcome decided by very close margins during the last few presidential cycles, so people really get involved,” he added.

But a growing level of engagement, coupled with a surge in coronavirus in the state, could combine to make things very interesting come election day, Nolette said.

And if the scenario Schultz described holds true, “it’s going to be a long week,” his counterpart at Marquette University said.

“That’s because a lot of the ballots cast have shifted to mail, absentee balloting and so forth, and that’s going to change even how things are counted, quite dramatically,” he said, explaining that under Wisconsin law, mail-in ballots can’t be counted until Election Day.

“So we’re going to get swamped. It’s almost inevitable. And I think it’s going to take at least a week before we get anything resembling final results from the presidential contest,” he said.

Nolette himself voted by mail this year, dropping his ballot in a drop box a short distance from his home.

“It was actually pretty easy,” he said. “But then, I’m already a registered voter. The whole process might be a bit trickier to navigate for first-time voters. Here, in particular, I’m thinking of students at Marquette and other colleges and universities, who might be confused about the process anyway, but also have concerns about the coronavirus.”

Enthusiasm Rests on Getting Trump Out

A common assertion in battleground states this fall is that while enthusiasm levels among Democratic voters is the strongest it has been since then-Sen. Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, what they are enthusiastic about is quite different.

The same assertions are heard when one focuses on Wisconsin.

“While the enthusiasm and interest in the race is palpable, I feel like it’s not necessarily enthusiasm for Joe Biden. What there is among Democrats is a massive enthusiasm to vote Trump out,” Nolette said.

“That appears to be driving the engagement in this race, and based on what I’ve seen, that’s driving Democratic enthusiasm much higher than it was 2016,” he said. “At the same time, and I think this is true in a number of states, there’s been some erosion of Trump’s base, and Biden has successfully capitalized on that dissatisfaction to some degree.”

But this is not to say everything is doom and gloom for Trump.

Unlike other swing states, where the suburbs of major metropolitan areas are growing more Democratic, the suburbs of Wisconsin are still quite red, Nolette said.

“The voters there continue to be extremely Republican. And they really haven’t budged that much,” he said.

According to Nolette, that’s because the suburbs of cities like Milwaukee still exhibit many of the characteristics of the so-called “White” suburbs in other states during the 1950s.

“Based on the last census … Milwaukee continues to be the most segregated city in America. So these suburbs, in addition to being very White, are not all that diverse,” he said. “Many of the people who live in the suburbs of Milwaukee, for instance, see the city as an urban failure, and you really haven’t seen the migration toward supporting Democrats there as you have seen in places like Texas.”

“The suburban voter in Wisconsin went from being Trump skeptical in the 2016 primary to being Trump supporters in the general election, and they’ve just stayed there. The suburbs here are solidly in the Republican camp,” he said.

Down Ticket not Uplifting

Another dynamic setting Wisconsin apart from other traditional battleground states this year is that contests lower down on the ticket aren’t inspiring much excitement.

“Truthfully, they’ve been kind of sleepy this year,” Nolette said.

“If I was going to explain it, I’d say the presidential race is definitely taking up all the oxygen for sure,” he added.

Nolette contrasted this to 2018, when Democrats won a number of statewide races.

“There was tremendous excitement in 2018, and then, more recently, the Democratic candidate won the state Supreme Court seat as well, so this year I think, people just view it as ‘the presidential year,'” he explained, though he did throw in a caveat.

“I do think Democrats in the state are focused on the races for the state legislature. Now, I would be surprised — very surprised — if the Democrats took over the State Senate, and, especially, the State House, but they are targeting both hard, hoping they can chip away at the Republican advantage.”

Currently, Republicans hold 63 of the State Assembly’s 99 seats and 18 of the Senate’s 33 — “which shows the impact of the Republican’s effective redistricting in the 2010 cycle,” Nolette said.

A supermajority in both chambers would allow Republicans to bypass any veto by Gov. Tony Evers at a time when there is no love lost between the GOP and Democratic governor.

Nolette said while the Republicans, in all likelihood, will keep control of the state legislature, the Democrats could win enough on election night to ensure they have meaningful seats at the table when the next redistricting is done after the 2020 census.

“This election could force the district maps to be fairer, at least fairer according to the Democrats, and make the electoral contests in the state much more competitive over the next decade,” he said.

Finally, we turned to David Schiltz’s prediction that two Wisconsin counties could mean everything when it comes to who occupies the White House for the next four years.

Nolette said if Democrats enjoy a good night on Nov. 3, it’ll be because turnout in the state’s Democratic strongholds, Milwaukee and Dane counties was strong.

“Dane county, in one sense, would be less noteworthy because turnout there is always high and always Democratic — it’s the home of the University of Wisconsin, Madison,” he said. “I remember looking at some of the precinct data for Dane County after 2018, and turnout in those precincts was 100%.

“Milwaukee County voters, on the other hand, are much more up and down in terms of participation in the process,” Nolette said.

In 2008 and 2012, when Obama was on the ballot, the voter turnout was strong in Milwaukee County. By contrast, in 2016, with Hillary Clinton at the top of the ballot, turnout dropped considerably.

“The takeaway from that is, when Milwaukee County votes, it votes overwhelmingly Democratic, but voters there are far less likely to vote consistently than their counterparts in Dane County, the other big Democratic center in the state.

“As for Brown County, it’s in what I think of as a ‘swingy’ part of the state. It’s about an hour-and-a-half north of Milwaukee County, and you think of it as the swing county in a swing state,” Nolette said. “Now, traditionally, it leans Democratic, just like Wisconsin has over the last several presidential cycles — except of course, 2016, with Trump’s upset.

“So I would watch what happens in Brown County on election night, because Brown County tends to mirror what’s going on elsewhere in the state,” he said.

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