Wisconsin’s 72 Counties Hold The Keys To the Election

October 13, 2020

Counties, Counties, Counties! The November election will come down to how people vote across Wisconsin’s diverse 72 counties.

The City of Milwaukee anchors the large population center counties in the Southeast part of the state. Democratic Milwaukee County is surrounded by the conservative WOW counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington. To Milwaukee’s South is Racine and Kenosha County, which borders Illinois. Racine and Kenosha are important SWING Counties for both Biden and Trump to carry. These counties reside in the most expensive media market in the state, the Milwaukee media market. We are being crushed with political ads this year in the Milwaukee media market.

Dane County is Wisconsin’s liberal bastion. The City of Madison and my great alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, drive Dane County votes toward progressive candidates. The Madison media market serves Dane County and the surrounding counties.

The Fox River Valley runs from Green Bay (Brown County) south to Appleton (Outagamie County) and Neenah (Winnebago County.) These cities, along with Oshkosh, anchor this critical swing region. The Green Bay media market serves this East Central Wisconsin cluster of Counties. Go Packers!

Finally, Rock County is home to former Speaker Paul Ryan. South of Madison, Rock has two large cities, Janesville and Beloit. Rock is a vital swing county as well.

These 11 counties represented 56% of the presidential electorate in 2016. The remaining 61 Wisconsin counties represented 44% of the 2016 electorate. This, my friends, is a significant Pareto effect. In other words, 15% of the counties delivered 56% of the votes four years ago. I assume the Pareto will be the same in 2020.

Let’s take a more in-depth look at these county clusters and how the vote is developing this year. The categories I’ve been using for analysis are:

MD – Milwaukee and Dane Counties are the BIG Democratic Vote Counties.

  • 25.2% of the 2016 Presidential Electorate
  • 2016 Vote: Clinton 67% vs. Trump 26% (+41%)
  • 2016 to 2020 voter registration change of -0.1%
  • ~800,000 votes will be cast in MD this year

WOW – Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington are the BIG Republican Vote Counties.

  • 12.4% of the 2016 Presidential Electorate
  • 2016 Vote: Clinton 33% vs. Trump 61% (+29%)
  • 2016 to 2020 voter registration change of +4.8%
  • ~393,000 votes will be cast in WOW this year

SWING – Kenosha, Racine, Brown, Winnebago, Outagamie, and Rock

  • 18.7% of the 2016 Presidential Electorate
  • 2016 Vote: Clinton 44% vs. Trump 49% (+5%)
  • 2016 to 2020 voter registration change of +3.9%
  • ~592,000 votes will be cast in SWING this year

Rest of Wisconsin (ROW)

  • 43.6% of the 2016 Presidential Electorate
  • 2016 Vote: Clinton 39% vs. Trump 55% (+16%)
  • 2016 to 2020 voter registration change of +2.3%
  • ~1,379,000 votes will be cast in ROW this year

In 2016, Trump beat Clinton by 22,748 votes. That’s a razor-thin margin. Here’s what Trump and Biden’s pathways to victory look like in Wisconsin:


  • Run up large margins in WOW and ROW. If Trump can expand his margin versus Biden in these two segments, it is a strong foundation for building a winning campaign.
  • Trump has to hold serve in the SWING counties. If he can run up the score in WOW and ROW, and hold serve in SWING he will have a strong chance of winning the state.
  • Trump has to hope MD doesn’t turn out in large numbers. A 2016-like turnout and margin in MD are key for Trump.


  • Outperform Clinton’s 2016 results in MD. Biden needs a wider margin here. Clinton slightly underperformed Obama’s margin in 2012. For each 1% of margin Biden can pick up in MD, he closes the Trump 2016 gap by 8,000 votes. Biden must run up the vote in Madison and mobilize large African American turnout in Milwaukee.
  • Improve in SWING counties. Brown, Rock, Racine, and Kenosha likely hold the key to more robust performance in SWING counties. Clinton only won Rock County in 2016. Picking up Racine and Kenosha counties are Biden’s best shot in SWING. Obama won Racine, Kenosha, Rock, and Winnebago in 2012.   
  • Hit 40% in ROW counties. Look to improve on Clinton’s 2016 win in LaCrosse in the West, and Eau Claire in the Northwest. Win back Columbia near Dane.  

How’s it looking in the counties in 2020?

First off, Wisconsin is voting at a fantastic clip. I saw some polling today that suggests this election is creating the most voter enthusiasm in recent elections. We see a lot of great mail-in activity in the state, and early vote starts October 20!

Wisconsin Voting Stats Through October 13

Mail-in Ballots Requested: 1,353,610
Mail-in Ballots Sent: 1,337,792
Mail-in Ballots Returned: 717,164 (54% return rate of sent ballots)

We’re quickly approaching 25% of the electorate with their vote in and done (23% in as of the 13th.) Interestingly, polling suggests that 33% of the electorate will vote by mail-in absentee ballots. With three full weeks of mail to collect, we’re likely to head north of 33%. This means that more of the electorate is voting by mail OR we’re heading to a real big turnout. Since 80% of the mail-in vote is coming from Dems and Independents, we may be seeing the excitement to vote materialize in mail-in ballot returns. Oh, and by the way, 20,000 Wisconsinite’s filed a request to vote by mail yesterday. The mail-in vote keeps getting bigger.

Let’s look at the County clusters and see how they are voting.

Ballots Returned (% return rate)

MD 237,509 ballots in (55% of sent ballots returned)
WOW 86,725 ballots in (51% returned)
SWING 137,289 ballots in (52% returned)
ROW 255,641 ballots in (54% returned)

% of registered voters who have voted

MD 26%
WOW 20%
ROW 17%

NOTE: It’s not surprising to see the MD Democratic stronghold lead the way on mail-in balloting. Dems will vote early, and Republicans will vote on Election Day.

% of the 2020 electorate that’s already voted  

MD 7.5% – MD has delivered 30% of its likely contribution to the total 2020 electorate.
WOW 2.7% – WOW has delivered 22% of its contribution to the total electorate.
SWING 4.3% – SWING has delivered 23% of its contribution to the total electorate.
ROW 8.0% – ROW has delivered 19% of its contribution to the total electorate.

With this much vote in, and three weeks to go, there are three major insights I’ll leave you with:

  1. We are heading to BIG turnout. Let’s get the votes counted fast on Election Day!!!
  2. Polls are ranging between +5 Biden to +10 Biden. If submitted ballots represent these polling margins, Biden is banking a sizeable lead. It will take a massive WOW and ROW turnout for Trump to close Biden’s banked lead.
  3. With 25% of the votes locked, current events will marginally impact the outcome, including the last debate. The time to persuade is done. It’s now about mobilizing the vote.  

A lot of great things happening in Wisconsin. Big vote totals in MD. Steady vote coming in for WOW and SWING. ROW counties are developing as big Election Day voting counties. Sadly, COVID continues to spike in Wisconsin. Let’s see how this shapes voting next week as early in-person voting begins.

Stay safe, Wisconsin, and keep voting!