Wisconsin’s Supreme Court Election is Not a Bellwether for 2020

I cannot agree with Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen that the Republicans’ Tuesday victory in the Wisconsin Supreme Court election means that Donald Trump “is becoming a slight favorite for reelection.” As he notes, the narrow margin separating the candidates was almost entirely explained by differential turnout.

Republican stronghold counties turned out at 53 percent, while Democratic ones had just 51 percent turnout, with Milwaukee lagging behind at a mere 38 percent. That appears to have been enough for the GOP, as they currently lead 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent. It’s no secret that conservatives are more motivated than liberals to take control of the nation’s courts. They also tend to skew older, whiter, and more affluent, all of which are variables associated with higher turnout in low-profile elections.

Nonetheless, the result is disappointing and should serve as a warning sign that the Badger State will be in play in 2020. Yet, one major difference between 2016 and 2020 is that, in 2016 Scott Walker was the governor of Wisconsin and was able to suppress turnout in Milwaukee.

On election night, Anthony was shocked to see Trump carry Wisconsin by nearly 23,000 votes. The state, which ranked second in the nation in voter participation in 2008 and 2012, saw its lowest turnout since 2000. More than half the state’s decline in turnout occurred in Milwaukee, which Clinton carried by a 77-18 margin, but where almost 41,000 fewer people voted in 2016 than in 2012. Turnout fell only slightly in white middle-class areas of the city but plunged in black ones. In Anthony’s old district, where aging houses on quiet tree-lined streets are interspersed with boarded-up buildings and vacant lots, turnout dropped by 23 percent from 2012. This is where Clinton lost the state and, with it, the larger narrative about the election.

Without a Republican governor in 2020, it’s going to be impossible for the state’s republicans to replicate that degree of voter suppression. Meaning, in order to carry the state, Trump is going to need to do better than he did in 2016 with the people who actually get to cast a vote. Mr. Olsen is probably correct when he predicts that Trump will do better than his approval numbers. If he doesn’t, he’ll lose as badly as Herbert Hoover, George McGovern, and Walter Mondale did in their futile election bids. Most likely, Trump will easily clear 45 percent and perhaps even win Wisconsin, but nothing in Tuesday’s election results really should give him much more optimism than he had last week.

It does indicate that the GOP has not collapsed in Wisconsin, but I don’t know anybody who thought that it had. If the overall election in 2020 is close, then the election in Wisconsin will be closer. But we knew that already.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com