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How Wisconsin became ground zero for American polarization

Election results show political divides in Wisconsin, once a true swing state, have become more calcified along county lines as the country has polarized.
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WASHINGTON — The shifts that have remade American politics in recent years can be seen and felt everywhere, but maybe no other state tells the story as clearly as Wisconsin.

Two Wisconsin elections are going down to the wire this fall — races for governor and senator — and if recent trends are to be believed, the nation’s sharp partisan divides are likely to be a driving force in both votes.

It wasn’t always so. For decades, Wisconsin was a battleground, with voters who swung from election to election. It wasn’t uncommon for the state to vote one way in a presidential election and then swing back to vote for the other party when it came to the Governor’s Mansion.

But look at elections over the past few decades in the state and familiar patterns emerge. National trends around race, education and urbanness among voters have had large impacts on Wisconsin’s statewide races.

You can see the trend when you reach back to the 1994 election for governor.

In that election, Gov. Tommy Thompson won by more than 35 percentage points, taking all but one of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, including Democratic strongholds Milwaukee and Dane counties (the home of Madison). That came between two presidential wins in the state for Democrat Bill Clinton, who won Wisconsin by more than 4 points in 1992 and by more than 10 points in 1996.

Flash-forward to the state’s 2002 election for governor and the results look different. The election went to Democrat Jim Doyle, but it was closer, although in many ways it was still broadly based.

Doyle won by the race by about 4 percentage points, but he also carried 43 of the 72 counties, 17 more than Democrat Al Gore won when he carried Wisconsin in the 2000 presidential election.

While Doyle ran up big margins in Milwaukee and Dane, he also won counties across much of the rural north, such as Price (population 15,800) and Forest (population 10,000).

That kind of win for a Democrat in Wisconsin is basically unheard of in the current political climate. In 2018, Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin won her seat by about 11 points, but she carried only 29 counties. In the 2018 election for governor, Democrat Tony Evers captured the Governor’s Mansion by a little more than 1 point, and he carried only 19 counties.

Evers’ winning map in 2018 leaned heavily on big margins out of Milwaukee and Dane counties — 35 points and 51 points, respectively. He won only six counties north of La Crosse.

Ultimately, that map didn’t look radically different from the map of Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential election results. Joe Biden won the state by less than 1 point and carried only 14 counties. Biden won Milwaukee by about 40 points and Dane by about 53 points. He won seven counties north of La Crosse.

None of this is damning. It is simply evidence of a broader change in our politics and a sign of how national partisan breakdowns have come to define state races. Wisconsin isn’t an outlier here; it’s an example of a trend in other states.

As the 2002 midterms approached, 27 states had voted for the same party in their most recent presidential and governor’s elections. Today, that’s true of 39 states.

In other words, Wisconsin is an example of how the old rule of elections, that “all politics is local,” seems much less true than it once was. In 2022, in Wisconsin and across the country, local politics and national politics look and feel increasingly similar.