Battlegrounds of Wisconsin: Where campaigns are visiting, spending to earn the Badger State

If you’ve heard it once this year, you’ve heard it a million times: in 2020, Wisconsin is the center of the political world.

Candidates – and their friends – have been spending a lot to get your attention, and not just on TV.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, $32.9 million has been pumped into Facebook ads in the state; $11.8 million has been spent in Google ads.

The money in that advertising isn’t spread evenly across the state — it’s focused where a candidate’s team wants it. For example America First Action, a political action committee for President Donald Trump, spent more than $30,000 over three weeks airing ads at one station in Green Bay.

Charles Franklin, the director of the Marquette University Law School Poll, is watching this closely. He sees how political preferences of the state have shifted over the years and how campaigns respond to those changes.

In 2016 candidate Trump did well in the northern and western counties of the state, and that alignment continued for Republican Gov. Scott Walker in the 2018 gubernatorial race.

“Governor Walker, even in losing in 2018, performed better in this northern and western part of the state than he had done himself 4 years earlier when he was reelected.”

President Trump is trying to hold on to his wins in those counties this year, too. Out of his seven planned trips to the state this year – one canceled due to his diagnosis with COVID-19 – five of the stops were in the northern half of the state.

“No matter what they say about where they’re strong or where they’re weak, look at where their travel schedule takes them,” Franklin said. “The candidates’ most precious resource is time.”

He said it doesn’t matter that the northern region of the state is slightly less populated because votes for him anywhere in the state are to his benefit, and these votes in particular could offset a change near Milwaukee.

“Both parties realize there’s a battle going on for the margins in these suburban Milwaukee counties,” Franklin said.

The “WOW” counties – Washington, Ozaukee and Waukesha – are traditionally red, but like suburbs across the country they are starting to purple.

“This is a nationwide shift,” Franklin said. “It’s been a little slow coming to Wisconsin, and we still have more Republican rather than purple suburbs, but they’re not as solidly republican as they were six to 10 years ago.”

Biden and his team have capitalized on that, sending Jill Biden to campaign in Waukesha just last month. It might not be enough to flip the counties, but even a hit to Trump there would help Biden.

“If you’re going to lose a region, lose it by 15 points instead of losing it by 20 points,” Franklin said. “That’s a worthwhile tradeoff to make in a statewide election, where it doesn’t really matter where your vote comes from, it just matters what the totals for each side are.”

One constant in this is in Madison and Milwaukee, which are pretty predictably blue, but how many voters turn out affects the whole state of the race.

Franklin, for one, isn’t counting any one region out.

“There won’t be one area that wins this,” he said. “It will be every area that can plausibly claim credit.”