What Happened: Wisconsin

In 2020, Joe Biden rebuilt the “Blue Wall,” and Wisconsin was a key piece of his Electoral College victory. Democrats also had a good night (comparatively) at the state-legislative level in Wisconsin, flipping two seats blue without ceding any ground to Republicans. EveryDistrict made a large, early investment in the Wisconsin Assembly, one of the only national groups to do so.

Gerrymandering didn’t start in Wisconsin, but the GOP legislature perfected the art after their 2010 takeover, enacting one of the most GOP-leaning gerrymanders in the country. Since then, Democrats have twice (in 2012 and 2018) won the popular vote in the Assembly, the state’s lower house, while winning a small minority of seats. 

Looking ahead to 2022 and beyond, Democratic Governor Evers’s veto pen is a reason for optimism. Though the still-GOP controlled state legislature will be responsible for drawing new district lines, Democrats have one more lever of control in the fight for fair maps than they did after 2010, when Republicans controlled all levels of government in the state.

In today’s piece, however, we’ll unpack some troubling trends that emerge from a deeper dive into the data.* Looking at these numbers, it’s clear that a path back to power in the Wisconsin legislature is going to require much more than just a better map.

Problem #1: A Shrinking Geographic Coalition

When Barack Obama won Wisconsin in 2012, the effect of the GOP gerrymander was visible in the fact that he only won 43 of the 99 Assembly districts. Still, there was a roadmap to a majority in that loss, even with the gerrymandered maps. Obama lost seven additional districts by less than three points; cumulatively, Democrats only needed to find an additional 13,000 votes. Ideally, sustained investment and coalition-building in those districts would have led to Democrats winning back the Assembly in future cycles.

Instead, we saw a collapse in competition for Assembly seats, going from a high of Democrats contesting 97% of seats in 2012 to only 73% in 2014. We’ve slowly rebounded since then, as the below graph shows.

Also, other statewide Democratic victories since then (decided by narrower margins) have played out on a much smaller map. In 2018, Governor Evers only won 36 Assembly districts, while in 2020 Joe Biden only won 37 Assembly districts, just one more than Clinton in 2016. 

Top-of-the-Ticket Margin+0.64%+1.10%-0.77%+6.95%
Top-of-the-Ticket Vote Difference+20,682+29,227-22,748+213,019
Top-of-the-Ticket Assembly Seats Won 37363643
Seats Won by Assembly Democrats38363539

In 2020, Biden lost ten 2012 Obama-won districts, while only winning four new districts (Clinton won two of them in 2016). Biden improved on Obama’s 2012 margins in only 33 districts. And those seven once-promising options for a majority have seen a sharp swing away from Democrats; Biden lost most of them by 15-20 points.

The path to an Assembly majority from the Biden coalition is much less clear, since that would involve flipping seats Biden lost by more than 10 points. Democratic Assembly candidates need to find an additional 33,000 votes in those 12 districts. Given the geography of the current Democratic coalition in the state, even a fairer map will still give the GOP an advantage. But even more troubling is that Assembly Republicans remain quite popular.

Problem #2: The Badger State Likes Assembly Republicans

“Down-ballot roll-off” is a common electoral phenomenon where the candidates at the top of the ticket get more votes than down-ballot candidates. Statewide candidates raise more money and can invest more in communications and get out the vote efforts, so some voters show up and vote for the candidates they’ve heard from and not for the local candidates that they know less about.

In looking at previous statewide elections in Wisconsin, we see this play out. Certainly, there’s ticket splitting that happens in both directions, but we saw Assembly Democrats and Republicans receiving fewer votes than their top-of-the-ticket counterparts.

2018 DEM2018 GOP2016 DEM2016 GOP2012 DEM2012 GOP
Top of the Ticket1,324,3071,295,0801,382,5361,405,2841,620,9851,407,966
Roll-Off Percentage97.50%84.93%85.05%95.16%87.44%88.70%

In 2020, something very different happened. The top vote getter in Wisconsin was not Joe Biden, but Assembly Republicans. 

2020 DEM2020 GOP
Top of the Ticket1,630,8661,610,184
Roll-Off Percentage85.97%103.57%

Why did this happen? We can’t say for sure, and there’s likely not one answer. But what we see broadly speaking is the double-edged sword of Trump turnout that we discussed in our initial “What Happened” piece.

2020 was not the commanding Joe Biden victory that the polls predicted (remember this poll from October saying Biden would win Wisconsin by 17 points?). All over the country, polls failed to predict the surge in Trump turnout that led to Trump netting 10 million more votes over his 2016 popular vote total.  

In Wisconsin, many of these Trump voters didn’t just vote for Trump. They also voted for their local Assembly Republican, seeing that candidate as embodying the Trump Republican Party. What’s also clear is that many voters who voted for Joe Biden also voted for their local Assembly Republican, seeing that candidate as distinct from Trump.

Where do we go next?

Joe Biden’s 80 million popular-vote victory is historic. But a closer look at the results shows troubling trend lines for Democrats in states that need to be part of the Democratic coalition moving forward. In Wisconsin, Biden’s rebuilt “Blue Wall” is not quite as formidable as the wall that stood during the Obama years.

As Democrats have struggled to make gains in state legislative chambers since the Republican takeover in 2010, it’s clear that gerrymandering has played a big role in stymying further success. But in Wisconsin, gerrymandering is not the only force to blame. The majority that was within reach eight years ago has slipped further away, despite competing under the same maps.

As Democrats think about how to rebuild a majority in the Wisconsin Assembly, the Biden coalition doesn’t provide a clear pathway. Democrats will need to do much more to understand why a group that refuses to do even the most basic parts of its job – like showing up for work – garnered so many votes this year. And whenever the new maps for the 2022 cycle are in place, Democrats will need to use those lessons learned to figure out how to build winning coalitions in the unique and GOP-leaning state legislative landscape.

*As we work on our “What Happened” series, we are working to compare Joe Biden’s performance in target state legislative districts to that of our endorsed candidates. Wisconsin is the first of our target states to release this data; as others provide this data we will share it as part of our analysis. You can see Biden’s performance by Assembly district by downloading this spreadsheet here.