Opinion: What the Wisconsin election results tell us about November

Editor’s Note: Alan J. Borsuk is senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee. He was previously a reporter and editor at the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He has covered and written about Wisconsin politics since the 1970s. The opinions in this article are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

What’s so important about 20,000 in an election with 3 million voters? In Wisconsin, the answer is that those seemingly small numbers can spell victory or defeat. In 2016, Republican Donald Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by fewer than 23,000 votes, a key to Trump’s overall victory. In 2020, Democrat Joe Biden beat Trump by just over 20,000 votes, a key to Biden’s overall victory.

Throw in the facts that Democrat Al Gore won Wisconsin over Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and Democrat John Kerry beat Bush in 2004, each time by well under 20,000 votes, and then consider the forecast that Wisconsin is very likely to have another extremely close presidential election this year.

Alan J. Borsuk - Courtesy Alan Borsuk
Alan J. Borsuk - Courtesy Alan Borsuk

That brings us to Tuesday’s presidential primaries in Wisconsin. The primaries were of zero practical consequence in determining the two major party nominations. But then again, why was Biden campaigning on 6th Street in Milwaukee on March 13, a street that heads into the heart of the city’s Black community? Why did Trump hold a rally on Tuesday night in Green Bay, two hours north of Milwaukee? And why has there been so much recent attention on that number of 20,000?

The basic answer is: because it’s the crucial swing state of Wisconsin. Not only election outcomes, but election strategies, turn on small blocs of voters statewide. While many locales have strong political identities, Wisconsin is a purple state where major elections are frequently decided by narrow margins — and candidates must align enough groups to garner more votes than major opponents. And “more” does not necessarily mean a whole lot more (sub-groups of, say, 20,000, can command a lot of attention).

One reason why 20,000 is in the spotlight is the Biden administration’s support of Israel during the war in Gaza. Opponents of Israel’s offensive have campaigned in states such as MichiganMinnesota and North Carolina for people to vote for the “uncommitted” or “uninstructed” option in Democratic presidential primaries to send a message to Biden that he can’t count on their support in November unless there are major changes in American policy regarding Israel — although opinions vary on what these changes might be.

This week, it was Wisconsin’s turn. Organizers of the “uninstructed” campaign said publicly that they were aiming for 20,000 people to vote that way on Tuesday. Why? Because that was Biden’s victory margin in 2020 and they want him to feel that his margin is imperiled.

The “uninstructed” advocates did better than their proclaimed goal: Unofficial and nearly complete returns put the “uninstructed” vote at 47,846, which was 8.4% of the votes cast in the Democratic primary. Biden received 506,969 votes, which was 88.6% of the total, with Minnesota Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips getting 17,553 votes, 3.1% of the total.

Was the “uninstructed” vote enough to send a message to Biden about Mideast policy? Leaders of the group immediately said yes, although the 8.4% percentage was less than in Minnesota, Michigan and North Carolina, which each had more than 10% of ballots cast that way. But how that message will play out come November is beyond prediction. For one thing, turnout will be much larger then – probably around 3 million, compared to Tuesday’s turnout of somewhat over a million. And circumstances involving Israel and Gaza could change. But consider the message sent, however it might be received.

There are other important messages that were tested in Wisconsin on Tuesday. For Trump, the question is how to bring together enough support to make a November majority feasible in Wisconsin. The suburban ring around Milwaukee, often described as some of the most deeply Republican turf in the country, has shown less support for Trump in recent years. In the end, Trump received 79% of the Republican primary votes even without any active campaign opposing him. Was there a message that he didn’t hit 80% of the vote? Among those suggesting that was CNN political reporter Gregory Krieg, who wrote, “Republicans once again delivered a warning to Trump about party unity and their willingness to vote for him again in November.”

The most widely known Republican from Wisconsin, former House Speaker Paul Ryan, is not a Trump supporter and Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher, who represents an area centered on Green Bay, was a rising figure in the GOP until he abruptly announced he was leaving Congress, apparently having had enough of Washington.

There have also been warning signals in Wisconsin about a factor that particularly threatens Biden’s Wisconsin prospects: enthusiasm — or, more accurately, lack thereof.

Earlier this year, I assisted the Marquette Law School Poll in surveying Wisconsin voters about the presidential race. One of the poll questions asked how enthusiastic people were to vote in November. The results were dramatic: Of those who said they were very enthusiastic about voting, 59% favored Trump and only 40% supported Biden. Of those who said they were not at all enthusiastic about voting, 57% said they favored Biden and 42% said they favored Trump. As Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette poll, states, enthusiasm generally connects to likelihood of actually turning out to vote.

That brings us back to Biden campaigning on Milwaukee’s 6th Street. An important element in Trump’s surprise victory in Wisconsin in 2016 was relatively low turnout among Black voters in Milwaukee, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Black turnout was somewhat better for Biden in 2020, and he won the state. But Biden’s popularity among Black people, both nationwide and in Wisconsin, is not strong. It is likely to be a continuing theme of the Democratic presidential campaign in Wisconsin to try to motivate Black voters.

Especially on the Democratic side, Wisconsin’s presidential campaigns may look like an act on the Ed Sullivan variety show, where an entertainer needs to keep rushing around the table to keep many plates spinning on a tabletop. Sentiment about Gaza and voting “uncommitted” is a particularly noteworthy plate right now. But there will be many other plates to spin – progressives, union people, rural voters, voters whose priorities are abortion or health care or climate or student loans or other issues.

In Wisconsin, the spinning plates might speak to 20,000 votes here, 20,000 voters there or 20,000 in other spots on the table. How good Biden and his campaign team are at keeping enough of them spinning may determine who wins the presidential race in this critical swing state.

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