For Republicans, the primary season begins and ends in Wisconsin, with the first GOP presidential debate and next summer’s convention, where the party’s nominee will be officially named.
Wisconsin has had some of the closest vote counts in both the 2016 and 2020 elections. In 2016, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by less than 1% in Wisconsin. The state helped secure his path to victory.
“What happened in Wisconsin happened around a lot of states around the country,” former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said. “Donald Trump became very popular in rural and northern Wisconsin, far reversing a trend which was heading the Democrats’ way for many years.”
President Barack Obama dominated Wisconsin in 2008, defeating Arizona Sen. John McCain. His victory was more narrow in 2012, when he defeated former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
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President Barack Obama won Wisconsin in 2008, defeating Arizona Sen. John McCain during the presidential race. (Fox News)
“I think there’s a huge independence streak,” former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, said. “That’s why years and years ago Tommy Thompson and Russ Feingold could win in the same year. Why you’ve got Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson – diametrically opposed. Voters here like someone that they feel, even if they have a tendency to vote one party over the other, they don’t like to be strictly one party”
Donald Trump consistently trailed Hillary Clinton in polling leading up to Election Day. In August, her lead in the Real Clear Politics Average of polls was more than 11%. By November, Clinton was still ahead by more than six points.
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Donald Trump consistently trailed Hillary Clinton in polling leading up to Election Day. (Fox News)
“I do think that Wisconsin was taken for granted,” Rep Gwen Moore, D-Wis., said. “I realized that Donald Trump could win. I had laughed it off up until about a month before the election and I was one of the people distraught that Hillary didn’t visit Wisconsin. This is not a place for anybody to take for granted, including the absent Donald Trump.”
In 2012, when Romney lost to Obama, he received around 2,500 more votes than Trump did four years later. Hillary Clinton had about 250,000 fewer votes than Obama. There was another factor that impacted the 2016 outcome.
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In 2012, Mitt Romney received 2,500 more votes than Trump did in the 2016 election. (Fox News)
“We go for those third parties,” Priebus explained. “And that was one thing that was missing in 2020. There was no Green Party ticket in 2020. And it could make a huge difference in a state like Wisconsin in 2024.”
More than 188,000 votes went to third-party candidates in 2016. That far surpasses the 23,000 votes Hillary Clinton needed to win Wisconsin
“As much as the Electoral College is all over the place, a few votes matter in a state like Wisconsin. One issue could matter. Having the convention in Wisconsin could matter. Anything can make the difference,” Priebus said. “When you’re only dealing with a few thousand votes per state, wedge issues make a huge difference.”
Ballot drop boxes became an ongoing legal fight in the state following the 2020 election. Wisconsin is one of 11 states to ban the practice.
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In 2016, Hillary Clinton had about 250,000 fewer votes in Wisconsin than President Obama did during the 2012 election. (Fox News)
“I think it’s significant. I mean you had a couple a hundred thousand ballots that by any measure, no matter what you think about the outcome, were not cast in 2020 according to how the statute requires,” Walker said. “The law says that you have to ask for them in writing, they were handing them out at parks. You had others where they didn’t fill out all the information.”
Since at least 2000, Wisconsin voters have been able to use absentee ballots without providing a reason. The state has also allowed early voting if using an absentee ballot.
“It used to be that when it was snowing in Wisconsin and I was state party chairman or raining on Election Day, I’d say, ‘Oh, great, it’s going to be good for the Republicans’ because we always assumed Republicans were better voters and they kind of are in off elections,” Priebus said. “But now, if it’s snowing or raining on Election Day, the Democrats are saying, ‘Oh, great… we already voted.’”
In 2016, 27% of voters utilized the absentee ballot option in Wisconsin. That amount rose to around 60% in 2020.
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Former Gov. Scott Walker, former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and Rep. Gwen Moore discuss their thoughts with Bret Baier regarding Wisconsin and past elections. (Dylan Hollingsworth/Bloomberg/Fox News/Morry Gash-Pool via Getty Images)
“I had the biggest fight with former Gov. Scott Walker back in the ’90s over absentee ballots because we were right there with Colorado and Minnesota with voter turnout, we had same day registration, no excuse absentee voting and again, Republicans in this state knowing how close the margins are, knowing that they are outnumbered,” Moore said. “Republicans realize that cheating is probably the best way to win Wisconsin.”
Voter turnout overall has been consistently high in the swing state. Since 2000, Wisconsin has been in the top four states in the country with around two-thirds of its citizens heading to the polls each presidential election.
“It’s been close because both political parties I mean, the Republican Party of Wisconsin, the Democrat Party of Wisconsin, these are two of the best state political parties in the country,” Priebus said.
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Democrats also planned to hold their convention in Milwaukee in 2020, but were forced to scale it down because of the pandemic. That event and next year’s Republican convention show how both parties have worked to appeal to Wisconsin voters.
“Let me just tell you, we are absolutely thrilled to have the Republican convention here – kind of jealous,” Moore said.