TLP's 2024 Swing-State Project: Wisconsin (Part One)
On Wisconsin political history, geographic trends, and turnout patterns.
Political History & Landscape
No state may be more deserving of its swing-state status than Wisconsin. Both major parties have had success here over the past few decades. Democrats have won the state’s electoral votes in nearly every presidential election since 1984 and controlled both U.S. Senate seats from 1993 to 2011. On the other side, Republicans held the governorship from 1987 to 2003 and had a state government trifecta—control of the governorship and both houses of the state legislature—from 2011 to 2019.
However, each party’s success has often come in incredibly close elections. Outside of Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 (+13.9 points) and 2012 (+6.9 points), for instance, presidential contests since the turn of the century have all been decided by less than one point. In each of those elections, the final margin put Wisconsin among the three closest states in the nation.
This reality has also been evident down the ballot. Since 2000, Democrats have won four elections for governor while Republicans have won three (including a recall), and successful candidates averaged a win margin of just 4.8 points. Additionally, from at least 1992 to 2008, Wisconsinites voted for divided state government fully 88 percent of the time, a reflection of the state’s divided electorate.
The story of modern-day Wisconsin, though, really begins with the 2010 midterms, when the Tea Party movement helped usher in a Republican wave across the country. In Wisconsin, the GOP earned a governing trifecta for the first time since 1998. This coincided with decennial redistricting, giving them a chance to gerrymander themselves into a permanent majority for the next decade—even as statewide elections continued producing narrow results.
Led by combative Governor Scott Walker, Wisconsin Republicans passed a slate of conservative laws over the next eight years and shifted the state in a decidedly right-wing direction. Most famously, they pushed policies that helped gut unions, diluting the power of a core Democratic constituency. Meanwhile, as ancestrally Democratic rural areas began trending more Republican, the state became more competitive at the presidential level, culminating in Donald Trump capturing it in 2016 and becoming the first Republican since Ronald Reagan to win the state’s electoral votes.
Democrats finally put an end to Republicans’ reign over state government in 2018, ousting Walker and flipping the attorney general and treasurer offices. Still, the Democrats barely made a dent in Republicans’ state-legislative majorities. Recent election cycles, moreover, show the state remains as competitive as ever. In 2020, Wisconsin swung back to Democrats at the presidential level, though Joe Biden’s win margins of 0.6 points and 20,682 votes were even narrower than Trump’s were in 2016. In the 2022 midterms, Wisconsin delivered one of the few split-ticket results in the country, re-electing both GOP Senator Ron Johnson and Democratic Governor Tony Evers by 1.0 point and 3.4 points, respectively.
Most recently, Wisconsin hosted a high-profile race for state Supreme Court in April 2023. Although candidates do not formally run on a party ticket for this body, they are usually loosely aligned with one of the two major parties and not shy about revealing their personal views. Conservatives held a slim four-to-three majority, with an open seat being vacated by a conservative justice. This left the balance of the court up for grabs and opened the door to the body revisiting hot-button issues like gerrymandering and abortion. After unprecedented levels of spending on both sides and a deluge of ads on the abortion issue, specifically, liberal candidate Janet Protasiewicz ultimately won a decisive 11-point victory and flipped the balance of the court.
Republicans, who fear the new liberal court majority will bust their gerrymandered state legislative and congressional maps and endanger their stranglehold on state power (among other things), threatened to impeach the new justice before she even has the opportunity to hear cases—continuing an alarming anti-democratic streak from the state GOP. For their part, Democrats may be overstating the lessons from Protasiewicz’s win, believing abortion to be a universally winning strategy moving forward despite ample evidence that it only worked for Protasiewicz given the unique circumstances of her race.
As a more practical matter, the court’s new liberal majority may toss the GOP’s legislative gerrymanders. Even under new, fairer maps, however, there’s no guarantee that Wisconsin’s evenly divided partisanship will be reflected in the congressional delegation or even the state legislature, as Democratic voters remain largely clustered around Madison and Milwaukee and are thus less efficiently distributed across the state than are Republican voters.
Heading into 2024, Wisconsin is once again expected to be among the most hotly contested states at the presidential level—and possibly for control of the U.S. Senate. In its initial outlook for the 2024 presidential contest, the Cook Political Report considers it once again a “toss up.”
2024 Senate Race
Two-term Democratic U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin is running for re-election in 2024. According to DW-NOMINATE scores, which gauge lawmakers’ relative ideological position, Baldwin is the sixth most progressive member of the Senate. Although Wisconsin is fairly evenly divided politically, Baldwin’s more liberal leanings have not prevented her from finding sustained electoral success. In each of her previous two Senate campaigns, she defeated her GOP opponent by at least five points. Before serving in the Senate, she represented Wisconsin’s Second District—situated around deep blue Dane County—from 1999 to 2013 and often won re-election with at least 60 percent of the vote.
However, ahead of her 2024 re-election bid, Baldwin’s approval rating has been middling. According to a November 2023 Morning Consult survey, 44 percent of Wisconsin voters approved of her job performance while 42 percent disapproved—putting her in the bottom quartile among all incumbent senators on the ballot in 2024. Similarly, several Marquette Law School polls have shown her net favorability just barely above water.
Still, Baldwin has already experienced some good fortune in her re-election bid, as several would-be, high-profile GOP challengers have declined to throw their hats into the ring, including Congressmen Bryan Steil (WI-01), Tom Tiffany (WI-07), and Mike Gallagher (WI-08) as well as former Governor Walker. As of December 2023, only three relatively unknown candidates had launched campaigns against Baldwin: Trempealeau County Supervisor Stacey Klein, retired U.S. Army veteran Patrick Schaefer-Wicke, and 40-year-old college student Rejani Raveendran.
As of the end of the third fundraising quarter in 2023, Baldwin had already raised $18.0 million and had $6.9 million in the bank. Given her stout war chest, her relatively good favorability, and the weakness of the GOP field, the Cook Political Report initially gave Baldwin a slight edge in her bid for another term, rating the Senate race “lean Democrat.”
Wisconsin’s growing political divide has correlated with increased geographic polarization over at least the past decade. Although Obama and Biden both won the state, Obama carried 35 counties in 2012 compared to Biden’s 14.1 One part of this equation was the rightward drift of the state’s rural counties. After Obama won them by 2.1 points, Biden lost them by 17.1. Worse still, Obama lost just five rural counties by more than 20 points while Biden lost 33—and came close to hitting that benchmark in several others too.
Nowhere has Democrats’ rural erosion become more evident than in southwest Wisconsin, an ancestrally Democratic region. In 2012, Obama won 16 of its 17 counties. By 2020, however, Trump won 12 of them—including 11 that had backed Obama. Of the five counties that voted for Biden, he trailed Obama’s performance in all of them. Overall, the region’s swing between the 2012 and 2020 presidential elections was 22.3 points toward Republicans; in counties Trump won, the swing was an even larger 27.1 points.
This rightward rural drift has also produced increasingly tight elections in Wisconsin’s Third Congressional District (WI-03), which has long covered much of the state’s southwestern area. WI-03 has the largest white citizen voting-age population (CVAP) of any district in the state—94.2 percent—and just 26.9 percent of the district’s residents hold a college degree, the second-lowest rate among all eight districts. Democratic Congressman Ron Kind represented WI-03 from 1997 to 2023, and for much of his career he won re-election by double digits. But even Kind wasn’t immune to the district’s shift to the right: after running unopposed in 2016, he won with 59.7 percent in 2018 and then eked out a win with 51.3 percent in 2020. Similarly, after Obama carried WI-03 by 11 points in 2012, Trump won it twice, each time by about 4.5 points. In the face of these shifting winds, Kind decided to retire in 2022 and his seat finally flipped to Republicans in the midterms, though only by a modest four points.
As rural areas have swung away from Democrats, the party has become increasingly reliant on college-educated voters, many of whom reside in and around the state’s population centers of Madison and Milwaukee. In fact, Biden outperformed Obama in only five counties, all of which are based near these metro areas: Milwaukee County, home to the city of Milwaukee and its immediate suburbs; Milwaukee’s collar counties of Washington, Ozaukee, and Waukesha (or the WOW counties); and Dane, home to state capital Madison and the University of Wisconsin.2 Collectively, these counties made up 37.1 percent of the 2020 vote share. Nearly half (45.1 percent) of Biden’s votes came from them in 2020. By comparison, they constituted 39.6 percent of Vice President Al Gore’s total votes in 2000.
Dane and Milwaukee are not only the largest counties in the state by population but also two of the most Democratic ones, backing Biden by 59.2 points and 39.8 points, respectively.3 He won more votes in Dane (260,121) than any other top-of-the-ticket Democrat in at least the last decade and the second-most votes (317,270) in Milwaukee County since Obama in 2012 (332,438). Given their size and strong Democratic lean, these counties are a crucial part of any path to victory in the state.4
Meanwhile, the WOW counties’ leftward shift in 2020 no doubt boosted Biden’s chances statewide. According to an analysis from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the biggest movement came from the more populous suburban areas closer to Milwaukee, which are home to a higher share of college graduates. Some of these areas gave Trump the lowest levels of support for any Republican presidential nominee since 1936. However, some in-state political observers believe these counties had already been trending away from Republicans and that Trump simply accelerated those shifts:
2020 President Milwaukee-Area Precinct Results: Actual (Map 1), Shift vs. 2016 (Map 2)
While the suburban WOW counties have moved leftward over the past decade, they remain extremely conservative overall—especially compared to most other suburban areas around the country. These three counties collectively backed Biden with just 37.6 percent of the vote, representing a slight increase from Obama’s 32.0 percent and Clinton’s 32.6 percent. The reasons for their strong support of Republicans have long been the subject of debate among political observers. One popular theory points to their racial homogeneity: together, these counties’ CVAP is a massive 92.8 percent white and, unlike other metro areas, suburban migration in Milwaukee hasn’t made the region that much more diverse.
Historically, Wisconsin has had among the highest voter turnout rate of any state for both presidential and midterm elections. This may be in no small part due to its perennially competitive nature. In presidential elections since 2000, Wisconsin’s voting-eligible population (VEP) has on average turned out at the second-highest rate (72.1 percent) of any state other than Minnesota (75.9 percent) and has never finished worse than fifth among all states during that period.5 Its turnout rate in presidential cycles during that time has been 11.3 points higher than the national average.
The same story holds true in midterm cycles as well. Since 2000, the only two states with a higher average midterm turnout than Wisconsin (53.7 percent) are Minnesota (58.8 percent) and Maine (55.4 percent). Wisconsin’s turnout was less impressive in the earlier part of the century, finishing with the sixth highest rate in 2006 and 2010 and a distant 17th in 2002. However, it has been near the top of the pack over the past decade, with the second highest rate in 2014 and 2018 and the fourth highest in 2022. The state’s 2014 figures were particularly impressive: in a year that saw a record-low 36.0 percent national turnout rate, 56.6 percent of Wisconsin’s VEP cast a ballot—more than 20 points above the national average and even up from 2010.
Part of the reason Democrats continue to be competitive in a state whose demographics are increasingly less likely to reflect those of the party’s national coalition is because their votes come from populous parts of the state where voters are highly engaged and trending leftward. Across eight statewide elections from 2012 to 2023—including three presidential races, two gubernatorial races, and three state Supreme Court races—the counties with the highest average turnout as a share of registered voters included Dane and all three WOW counties.6
Of note, Milwaukee County, the most populous in the state, has had the second-lowest turnout rate across those elections, behind only Menominee County (home to the Menominee Indian tribe). However, there is a significant gap between the city of Milwaukee and the suburban portion of the county. Registered voters in the county’s suburbs turned out at a rate of 70.1 percent across these eight contests, close to the statewide average of 74.1 percent. However, the city’s turnout was just 58.4 percent.
Indeed, registered voter turnout in Milwaukee City has fallen at an alarming rate over the past decade. After it hit an astonishing 87.2 percent in the 2012 presidential election, it dropped to 75.5 percent in 2016 and only marginally bounced back to 78.5 percent in 2020. Turnout in the city has remained lower than most of the rest of the state in midterm cycles, too. In 2014, as the country experienced record-low voter turnout, 65.7 percent of registered Milwaukee voters cast a ballot. However, while turnout nationwide was up significantly from 2014 in the 2022 midterms, it fell even further in Milwaukee to 61.8 percent. Even in 2018, when turnout hit historic highs across the country, it was 73.6 percent in the city, which was lower than all but two other Wisconsin counties.
Democrats have made up for the turnout decline in the city of Milwaukee by performing better in its surrounding suburbs in recent elections. Still, such serious drop-off in this vote-rich city is something that could haunt the party in a close election. In fact, it already has: U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes lost his high-profile 2022 race to incumbent GOP Senator Ron Johnson by 26,718 votes (or just one point). If turnout in Milwaukee had hit 2018 levels, Johnson’s margin would have shrunk to under 5,000 votes. And if Barnes had additionally matched Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin’s 2018 margin—64 points versus his 61.4 points—he would have won the race by 899 votes.
[Part two of this report tomorrow will examine population and demographic characteristics and voting trends in Wisconsin.]
Michael Baharaeen is the director of political research at Blue Compass Strategies. He is a native of Kansas City and writes the Checks and Balances newsletter on Substack.
Biden did flip back two Obama-Trump counties—Door and Sauk—but his margins in them were much smaller than Obama’s.
Notably, all five boast higher rates of college degrees than the statewide average.
Only one other county—Menominee, home to the Menominee Indian tribe and less than 0.01 percent of the 2020 vote—was even more Democratic, breaking for Biden by 64.5 points.
Also, the Democrats’ only two U.S. House seats in the 118th Congress from Wisconsin are WI-02 (Madison) and WI-04 (Milwaukee).
Of note, the year it saw the fifth-highest turnout rate was 2016, when Clinton narrowly lost the state by just 22,748 votes, or 0.7 points.
Rounding out the top five was Door—a small Obama-Trump county that is a popular tourist destination.