Will the Women of Wisconsin Decide the Next President?

One subset of Wisconsin women could be the clearest path to victory for the candidates seeking to secure our critical swing state.

Illustration by Katie Carey

THE BUS WAS PINK. Bright pink, with “Women for Trump 2020” emblazoned on its side in an equally bright white. And when it pulled up in front of a Milwaukee church in July, the same month that the Democratic National Convention was originally slated to take place here, it commanded attention as much as any of the political ads or campaign signs scattered throughout the city.

Women for Trump ambassadors had boarded the bus earlier that week, embarking on a five-month tour of all corners of the country to convince women to help re-elect the president. They started by driving straight to Wisconsin.

It’s easy to see why.

The state’s 10 electoral votes could prove crucial to Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and both candidates are campaigning heavily here. Trump only narrowly prevailed in 2016, and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers just as narrowly defeated Republican Scott Walker in the 2018 gubernatorial election. The scales could easily tip left or right again. And it seems likely that one of the state’s largest demographic groups – working-class white women – will help determine which direction the state, and maybe the country, ends up tilting this month.

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“Women were the ones who elected Donald Trump,” Women for Trump co-founder Amy Kremer told Milwaukee Magazine after her group’s July appearance. “Women were also the ones who defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016. And I believe that women will be the ones who decide again who we want in the White House.”

Trump’s margin of victory over Clinton in Wisconsin was famously razor-thin: less than 23,000 votes, or 0.8% of all votes cast. And Clinton later admitted that she assumed she’d take the state. “If there‘s one place where we were caught by surprise, it was Wisconsin,” she wrote in her 2017 memoir. “Polls showed us comfortably ahead, right up until the end.”

So, what happened? Why did an electorate who had backed Democrats in every presidential race since 1988 suddenly support a Republican?

Both liberals and conservatives have also suggested that Clinton might well have won Wisconsin if she’d spent more time and resources here. But she lost six additional states that Barack Obama had carried in 2012, and campaigned heavily in many of them. So her poor performance in America’s Dairyland shouldn’t be shrugged off as a failure to shake enough hands in La Crosse or make enough speeches in Milwaukee.

Instead, it might make more sense to think about it in terms of political preferences among demographic groups.

In the months leading up the 2016 election, polls consistently indicated that many more women, both in Wisconsin and across the country, would vote for Clinton. Slightly more women did, in fact, support Clinton nationwide. But not to the extent that they’d been expected to. And that was largely because those pollsters underestimated just how many white women without college degrees would cast ballots for Trump. They ultimately preferred him to Clinton, 61% to 34%, nationally, and by an only slightly slimmer margin of 56% to 40% here in Wisconsin, according to a CNN exit poll.

That demographic group makes up a higher-than-average percentage of the electorate in Wisconsin, as it does in many of the other states that Trump unexpectedly won. And it’s likely that, if pollsters had been able to more accurately predict how that group of women would vote, they would have been far less surprised by the outcome of the election, here or elsewhere.

The final Marquette Law School Poll – considered among the most reliable in the country – before the 2016 election showed Clinton leading Trump by 6 points in Wisconsin. But poll director Charles Franklin believes that he and his colleagues have a better handle on what’s going to happen here this time around.

Why? For one thing, he says there are far fewer undecided voters now. “Love him or despise him,” Franklin says of Trump, “you’re basing that off of three and a half years of how he’s handled the presidency. In that sense, I think there’s less room for uncertainty and ambivalence.”

For another thing, voter attitudes have remained remarkably consistent in recent months, even after ongoing protests and turmoil. “It looks like his rhetoric of ‘law and order’ has made a difference among Republicans, but that’s his base anyway,” Franklin says. “He preached to the choir. The choir gave him an ‘amen.’ But it was still the choir.”

What kind of picture are Franklin’s polls painting of Wisconsin voters this time?

In the Sept. 30-Oct. 4 iteration of the poll, 40% of Wisconsin men who said they were likely to vote supported Biden, and 49% supported Trump. Among women, 52% supported Biden, and only 34% supported Trump. Overall, the state’s likely voters preferred Biden to Trump, 46% to 41%.

The May poll showed similar top-line results but also captured registered voters’ preferences by gender and education level. While likely voters is a more reliable metric, the poll showed that white women without a college degree supported Biden over Trump by a margin of 8 points. That is especially important because it represents a major shift in that key demographic that fueled Trump’s 2016 surprise victory – a 24-point swing toward the Democratic candidate between the 2016 CNN exit poll and the May Marquette poll.

Comparing different polls can be dicey, but with that much ground lost, Trump will have to either find new voters among other demographic groups or convince at least some of those women to change their minds and vote for him again.

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WISCONSIN REPUBLICANS AND DEMOCRATS ALIKE are scrambling to figure out why working-class white women seem to have moved a few steps further toward the Democratic ticket since 2016 – especially since they’re seeing a similar shift in other states across the country.

Many have suggested that women must be tired of Trump’s “locker room” talk. That is, they’ve heard about his rumored affairs and assaults or the disparaging comments he’s made about women, and they must have decided that they can no longer support a candidate they believe to be openly misogynistic.

But Kathleen Dolan, a UW-Milwaukee professor who is an editor of The American Journal of Political Science, believes that the (typically) liberal writers who pen these think pieces may be suggesting as much because they’re imagining how they themselves would react, and not because they’ve seen compelling evidence to suggest that large numbers of 2016 Trump supporters have abandoned the president over gender issues. And many women approve of Trump overall, even if they don’t appreciate all of his tweets or sexist comments.

And she seems equally skeptical of the idea that all women have turned away from Trump en masse because of the way he’s handled the pandemic. Or the economy. Or the protests that have proliferated across the country in recent months. Because, as far as she’s concerned, no single narrative can neatly explain how or why such a large demographic group votes.

“People like to say that women are going to determine the election – that sounds nice,” Dolan adds. “It’s true to the extent that women turn out to vote more often than men.”

When Dolan sees stories suggesting that women are panicking over the pandemic, or that they’re clutching their metaphorical pearls over the latest protests, she also wonders if the writers telling those stories are just trotting out tired stereotypes about women, portraying them as hysterics who “can be pushed one way or the other because of fear.”

She’s also quick to point out that there’s a great deal of diversity even among the state’s white working-class women. Some are unmarried, some are married. Some live in rural areas, some live in cities. Some are young, some are old. Some earn far less than the average person, some earn far more. Those differences inform their voting choices.

It does seem likely, based on polling results, that more of them overall will cast ballots for Biden than for Trump. But they’ll all be bringing their own backgrounds and beliefs to their polling stations with them.

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Illustration by Katie Carey

ALL OF THE DEMOCRATS INTERVIEWED for this story seemed convinced that Biden would be able to turn out an unprecedented number of voters.

Democratic state Sen. LaTonya Johnson says she saw a huge surge in enthusiasm among women when Biden announced Kamala Harris as his running mate. Johnson’s daughter volunteers for the Biden campaign, and her phone was ringing off the hook when the news came in. Johnson also believes that when women head to the polls, they’ll be thinking about the message they want to send their children, and future generations of Americans. “I don’t think women are going to forget on Election Day that kids have been locked in cages and taken away from their families,” she says. “Women are tired of seeing their country destroyed.”

And all of the Republicans interviewed for this story seemed just as sure that pollsters have once again overestimated how many women will be voting for the Democratic candidate.

“I know there are a lot of Republican women who don’t give out accurate [poll] responses,” Republican Women of Dane County president Nancy Bartlett says. (Franklin says he’s skeptical of the idea of “shy” Republican voters, but acknowledges that it’s all but impossible to prove that they don’t exist.)

Bartlett also says that GOP women in the Madison area seem as politically engaged as they’ve ever been: “I’m seeing a lot of enthusiasm.” She reports that the RWDC’s membership has grown since 2016, and that she’s seen especially high levels of turnout at its pro-police car caravans – a type of socially distanced event the club has begun putting on to comply with COVID-era restrictions.

She believes that many local women support Trump because they think he’s more honest about his political agenda than other politicians, and that he keeps his promises. “When he says he’s going to do something,” Bartlett says, “he does it.”

In other words, women on both sides of the spectrum seem to agree Wisconsin women are eager to vote. Political analysts agree, too, predicting turnout for the 2020 presidential election that could break records across demographic groups.

“This is going to be a battle of mobilization and turnout,” Dolan says. “Certainly, the margin will be close.”

The ‘Likability’ Problem

One hundred years after winning the right to vote, women are still woefully underrepresented in politics, only holding about a quarter of the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.

According to Erin Forrest, executive director of a nonprofit called Emerge Wisconsin that provides women with the resources they need to run for office, “We as a country don’t like women who are seeking power.” Hillary Clinton’s popularity levels dropped when she was running for office, then shot up again when Barack Obama named her his secretary of state. And voters regularly deride female candidates on both sides of the aisle as unlikeable.

Forrest is cautiously optimistic that women will begin winning more elections in the years to come, though. “Women running for office have been more visible over the last four years,” she says. “Once somebody does it, it’s easier for others to follow.”

Courtesy of Kenosha County Historical Society

Wisconsin: First* in Suffrage

ON JUNE 10, 1919, Wisconsin became the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. And don’t listen to any friends from Illinois who try to tell you otherwise!

That spring of 1919, members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that would grant women the right to vote. It couldn’t take effect, though, until three-fourths of the states had ratified it.

Activists struggled for decades to convince Wisconsin politicians to champion women’s suffrage. But by 1919, enough Americans had rallied around the cause that they were able to persuade state legislators that the amendment would eventually pass, and that they could earn a lifetime’s worth of bragging rights by ratifying it before anyone else. When the Wisconsin Assembly convened around 10:30 a.m. on June 10, most of the men there were eager to rubber-stamp a resolution.

There were, of course, a couple of holdouts. Milwaukee Rep. John Donnelly was accused of stalling. And even some of the state senators who supported the cause wasted time arguing over who should get to author the resolution. Because of that, the Wisconsinites didn’t actually vote in favor of ratification until 11:42 a.m., almost an hour after those speed demons down in Illinois had already done the same thing.

Local suffragists weren’t daunted by the setback, though. They reminded the legislators that nothing could be considered final until they got the resolution to Washington, D.C. And one of them, David James of Richland Center (whose daughter Ada was a leader of the suffrage movement), decided to take the papers directly to Capitol Hill himself, to get them in front of the people who needed to see them before anyone else could.

Jones ultimately succeeded, at least in part because the Illinois legislators realized that they hadn’t properly filled out all the necessary paperwork. And, according to the Wisconsin State Journal, government officials eventually acknowledged that Wisconsin had “captured the honors by completing all formalities attendant upon ratification before any other state.”

So our state’s legislators got to pat themselves on the back. And when the amendment was finally ratified by enough states a little over a year later, the women of Wisconsin got to vote. And, even a century later, we get to one-up our neighbors to the south.

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Lindsey Anderson covers culture for Milwaukee Magazine. Before joining the MilMag team she worked as an editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and wrote freelance articles for ArtSlant and Eater.