2020 Is Not 2016: Joe Biden Looks Poised to Win in Wisconsin

Joe Biden is in a better position to win now than Hillary Clinton was in 2016. While a Trump victory is not impossible, the rapidly worsening pandemic in Wisconsin will likely cost him the state.

The Recombobulation Area is a weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

Joe Biden has led by between four and six percentage points in every Marquette poll since May. Will he carry that lead to the finish line? Photo via Joe Biden on Facebook.

Before we get to this week’s column on the final Marquette University Law School Poll before Election Day, a reminder of the words of poll director Charles Franklin:

“Polls don’t vote. The election is in your hands.”

You probably don’t need another reminder of the importance of this election and Wisconsin’s place at the center of it, but it’s a point that can’t be overlooked: Wisconsin voters have the unique ability this election to play a pivotal role in deciding the future of the country.

Because of the Electoral College, your votes for president here matter more than they would in many other states. We are in a time of genuine crisis in this country, and you can make an enormous difference in what happens next.

What’s also extremely important right now is to vote as soon as you possibly can and as safely as you possibly can.

Wisconsin is at the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic right now, and the state is setting new records in cases, hospitalizations and deaths almost every day. It might not be safe for everyone to cast their vote in person. A Supreme Court ruling this week made it even more challenging for voters to cast absentee ballots during the pandemic, and the postal service has been mired in delays, particularly in battleground states. So at this point, don’t take any chances with the mail. Go to a drop-off or early voting location (here’s where you can drop yours off in Milwaukee). Check the state’s election website, myvote.wi.gov, and track your ballot to make sure it has been received.

Do not wait. Do it now. Our future depends on it.


On to the column...

Wisconsin might be the most important state in the 2020 presidential election, and the Marquette University Law School Poll is the state’s gold standard of measuring where voters stand, so here at The Recombobulation Area, each new poll is going to be monitored closely. See the breakdown of the May poll here, the June poll here, the August poll here, the September poll here, and the early October poll here.

Heads up for paying subscribers: There will be a bonus breakdown arriving in your inbox later this week. The detailed topics covered in past breakdowns — the gender gap, undecided voters, support for the Black Lives Matter movement, Trump in the suburbs, etc. — will be part of that breakdown, as will an analysis of the approval rating nosedive for the Wisconsin State Legislature as the down-ballot races heat up. Consider becoming a paying subscriber to access bonus content and to support this independent media effort.

Election Day is less than a week away and the Democratic candidate on the ballot has a significant lead in the polls and looks set to win Wisconsin and its 10 electoral votes.

What’s true now was true in 2016, of course. It’s hard to look at any pre-election polling involving Donald Trump and not think of the historic upset he pulled off in Wisconsin to win by a razor-thin margin four years ago.

But 2020 is not 2016. This is not the same country it was four years ago. The conditions on the ground are so incredibly different. The big “issue questions” in the final pre-election poll from Marquette University in 2016 were on the Access Hollywood tape, Donald Trump’s tax returns, and Hillary Clinton’s emails. This time, the questions were about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 220,000 Americans (and that Wisconsin now finds itself in the epicenter of), and the largest protest movement in American history. You could say things are a bit more serious now.

Joe Biden is also a much different candidate than Hillary Clinton, and the polling backs it up. While the head-to-head margin is rather similar at this stage of the game — it was 46%-40% in favor of Clinton then and it’s 47%-42% in favor of Biden now — the former vice president is on track for success in key areas where Clinton faltered.

Biden’s favorability rating has continued its upward trend up to 50% favorable, 45% unfavorable. In the final pre-election poll in 2016, Clinton was viewed 44% favorable, 52% unfavorable. Clinton never saw a net-positive favorability rating at any point of her campaign. Nor has Trump at any point of his candidacy — or his presidency, for that matter. He’s currently polling at 45% favorable, 53% unfavorable.

In the question asking if the candidate “cares about people like me,” Biden does even better — 56% say he does “care,” just 40% say he doesn’t. That’s far ahead of Trump (42%-55%) and significantly ahead of Clinton in 2016 (47%-51%).

While Biden is polling far better in the favorability and “cares about” results than Trump, the president is actually polling better on those questions than he was four years ago at this stage. In that final poll of the 2016 race, just 35% viewed him favorably and only 37% thought he “cares about people like me.”

Yet, there are other ways in which Biden 2020 has advantages in Wisconsin over Clinton 2016.

There are fewer third parties to add to the variability of the race. In 2016, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein combined for 7% in the final poll, but received less than 5% of votes in the end. Jo Jorgensen is only polling at 2% now.

Independents were split in 2016 — 38% for Clinton, 39% for Trump — but that’s changed in 2020. Biden leads with independents, 47% to 36%.

Biden is doing much better outside of the state's metro areas than Clinton did in 2016. In the Green Bay/Fox Valley area, Biden and Trump are basically even, and in the “Rest of state” category, Biden leads. Clinton was a net double-digit negative in both of those regions in the final 2016 poll, and she famously struggled mightily in more rural areas.


Biden is certainly in the lead, but this is not an unwinnable race for Donald Trump. In this poll, he only trails by five percentage points, and the combined number of undecided voters (answering either “don’t know,” “none of these,” or refusing to answer) total up to to 8%, similar to the 9% of undecided voters in 2016.

In any discussion of what happened in 2016 in Wisconsin, there are two facts that must be acknowledged: 1) Donald Trump won with fewer votes in 2016 (1,405,284) than Mitt Romney lost with in 2012 (1,407,966), and 2) Late-deciders played a huge role in Trump’s win, breaking 59% to 30% for the eventual president.

Any Trump victory is banking on suppressing votes and encouraging low turnout — now seemingly a core aspect of the Republican Party’s electoral strategy — along with late-deciders again breaking in overwhelming numbers for the president.

While other polls are basically putting the race out of reach, and FiveThirtyEight’s polling average gives Biden a 93% chance of winning the state, those late-breaking voters have to be the chief concern for Biden and the Democrats. There’s also this: according to an analysis by David Wasserman, editor of Cook Political Report, most polls in the Midwest and Great Lakes “undershot Republicans’ final margin” in recent years, “including by an average of 4.4 points in the "Trump triumph" of 2016 and 2.5 points in the "blue wave" of 2018.”

But with the ghosts of 2016 looming large, the motivation factor should be different this time around, and that should change the turnout equation. Democratic voters have heard for four long years about the 22,748-vote margin that delivered Wisconsin to Trump. The 238,449-vote drop from Obama 2012 to Clinton 2016 has not been ignored. Wisconsin Democrats should know by now not to take any poll result for granted.

Along with voter suppression and deterrence efforts, the pandemic obviously creates challenges in getting people to the polls. But hopefully, the state has learned from its mistakes in the spring election, and hopefully, the current push to get people to vote early will be successful in allowing people to exercise their right to vote safely and without the risk of contracting a deadly virus.

Low turnout and late-breaking Trump voters could give Republicans reasons for optimism, but there are a lot of reasons to believe that Joe Biden will win this race. He leads in every age group. He leads in every income level. He has a 20-point lead with women. He has a nearly 40-point lead with moderates.

Most of all, the stakes and the issues are dramatically different than they were four years ago. Wisconsin is recording record high cases, hospitalizations and deaths from coronavirus nearly every day.

This might ultimately be the only result that truly matters from this poll:

“Do you approve or disapprove of the way Donald Trump is handling the coronavirus outbreak?”

Approve: 40%
Disapprove: 59%

And with four categories, results are:

Strongly Approve: 29%
Somewhat Approve: 11%
Somewhat Disapprove: 8%
Strongly Disapprove: 51%

That 40% approval rating on the handling of the outbreak is Trump’s worst result on that question since the pandemic began. He was at a net plus-5 when the question was first asked in March (his only positive rating on this question) and is now a net minus-19. Very few people outside of his party think he’s doing a good job on the issue. He’s a net-negative with men, women, independents, moderates, and people of all age groups, education levels, and income levels. People can see the job he’s doing.

Dozens of Wisconsinites are dying every day from this virus. Hospitalizations have skyrocketed, and the state had to open a field hospital as health systems across the state are pushed to their limits. Cases have exploded. The positivity rate keeps going up and up and up. No state is being harder-hit by the virus right now than Wisconsin.

With what’s happening all around us, is it really a surprise that an overwhelming majority disapproves of Trump’s handling of the crisis? Is it at all surprising that 51% of voters strongly disapprove of the job he’s doing to fight the pandemic? Isn’t this what it’s all coming down to?

Perhaps if not for the upset in 2016, this race might not look all that close. During the largest public health crisis in a century, one that has been catastrophically mismanaged by the current administration, the nation choosing to elect the former vice president from the extremely popular previous administration instead of the guy responsible for the failed response might be the simple and obvious end result to all of this.

The most likely outcome right now is that Joe Biden wins in Wisconsin. His lead is not insurmountable, but he’s in better shape than Hillary Clinton was four years ago. Donald Trump’s response to the out-of-control coronavirus pandemic is going to be the defining issue of the election, and he has clearly failed miserably — especially here in Wisconsin. It should cost him his job.

Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.

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