Trump and Johnson Turn Wisconsin Red

 Joe Murray  |    December 08, 2016

It’s been a long time since Republicans carried Wisconsin in a presidential election. For the first time in over three decades, the GOP captured the Badger State for both their presidential nominee, Donald Trump, and the U.S. Senate candidate, incumbent Ron Johnson. And these candidates’ strong electoral performance on November 8 in small towns, villages and rural areas of Wisconsin helped the GOP maintain and expand its dominance in congressional and state legislative seats across the board.

These one-sided results were a total surprise to most political pollsters, commentators and election prognosticators ‚ÄĒ including yours truly. Going into Election Day, it was widely assumed that Hillary Clinton and Russ Feingold would carry Wisconsin at the top of the ticket and Republicans would likely lose a few state legislative seats in the process. It didn‚Äôt turn out that way. With the 2016 election cycle behind us, here are a few facts and figures to wrap up this historic and controversial election year in Wisconsin.


2016 Presidential Election Results

Donald Trump (R): 1,409,467 (48%)
Hillary Clinton (D): 1,382,210 (47%)
Other:       137,422 (5%)
Trump Over Clinton:           27,257 votes


2016 U.S. Senate Election Results

Ron Johnson (R): 1,479,262 (50%)
Russ Feingold (D): 1,380,496 (47%)
Other:       87,291 (3%)
Johnson over Feingold:     98,766 votes



‚ÄĘ The polls were wrong: In presidential elections going back to 1988, Wisconsin has been a reliable ‚ÄúBlue State.‚ÄĚ The Marquette University Law School poll ‚ÄĒ considered the gold standard of polling in Wisconsin ‚ÄĒ tested Clinton-Trump 13 times since August 2015, and Clinton led all 13. There was no statistical reason to believe that Wisconsin voters would put Trump over Clinton in the Badger State in 2016.

But the polls were wrong. The typically reliable Marquette polls were wrong, and virtually all the other public polls were wrong. By the slimmest of margins at 27,257 votes, Trump carried Wisconsin for the GOP, and pollsters were left to explain why they missed the coming red tide.

‚ÄĘ 1980 and 1984: The last time a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate carried Wisconsin in a presidential election year was 1980 when Bob Kasten defeated incumbent Gaylord Nelson. The last time a GOP nominee carried Wisconsin in a presidential election was 1984 when Ronald Reagan easily defeated Walter Mondale.

‚ÄĘ Voter turnout declines: At 66 percent, the 2016 election saw the lowest voter turnout rate in Wisconsin since 1996. Election watchers were surprised by the decline because 828,451 absentee ballots were cast before the November 8 election statewide, or approximately 28 percent of the total vote, compared to 21.5 percent in 2012. This would strongly suggest there is no correlation between early voting numbers and total turnout. In 2012, total voter turnout was 3,071,434 at 70 percent. Only 2,918,954 voters, or 66 percent, showed up in 2016, which is a four-point decline from four years ago.

‚ÄĘ Feingold vs. Johnson rematch: The 2016 U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin between Russ Feingold and Ron Johnson was the first Senate rematch election in Wisconsin history, according to Smart Politics, noting that ‚Äúseven defeated majority party nominees have run again; all failed and only three made it back to the general election ballot.‚ÄĚ Thus, Feingold ended up as the eighth majority party candidate to come back from a loss and lose again.

‚ÄĘ 8th Congressional District remains red: The only competitive U.S. House seat in Wisconsin in 2016 was the 8th Congressional District in the Fox Valley. Incumbent GOP Congressman Reid Ribble retired, setting up the most expensive congressional race in Wisconsin history pitting first-time candidate Mike Gallagher (R) against Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson (D). The 8th Congressional District includes Green Bay and Appleton and tends to lean GOP. Donald Trump‚Äôs strong performance in the Fox Valley along with Gallagher‚Äôs well run campaign was too much for Democrats to overcome. Gallagher cruised to a stunning victory by defeating Nelson 63 percent to 37 percent, or 92,084 votes.

‚ÄĘ Legislative Republicans have a big night: For the fourth consecutive election cycle, from 2010 to 2016, legislative Republicans maintained and slightly increased their majorities in the state Senate and Assembly. Fueled by record fundraising and a strong top-of-the-ticket surge from Donald Trump and Ron Johnson, both the state Senate and Assembly GOP added one new member to their already large majorities. The GOP now controls the state Senate 20-13 and the GOP majority in the Assembly sits at 64-35. These are the largest Republican majorities since 1956.¬†

‚ÄĘ ‚ÄúTie‚Äôem to Trump‚ÄĚ strategy backfired: Once Donald Trump secured the GOP nomination in May, Democrats in Wisconsin and nationally decided to hold their GOP opponents feet to the fire for almost anything Trump did or said that was controversial. Early on, this seemed like a logical and smart political move, but in the end, it backfired. With Trump‚Äôs win in Wisconsin coming from small towns and rural areas, Republicans benefited in a big way. Virtually all the highly competitive swing seats were located in counties that Trump carried easily. Oops!¬†

The GOP now controls all the levels of power in Madison and Washington. Now they must deliver on their promises. If they don’t, the next mid-term election in two years could easily remind them what voters do when legislators fail to perform.

Joe Murray is Director of Political and Governmental Affairs for the WRA. 

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