Are Wisconsin and Pennsylvania Changing Color?

Stuart Rothenberg April 25, 2017 · 8:55 AM EDT

Are Wisconsin and Pennsylvania realigning with the GOP, or were Donald Trump’s victories in both states – and the accompanying Republican Senate wins last year – merely aberrations?

The answer will likely impact the fate of the country’s two major parties over the next decade.

Partisan realignments follow from significant attitudinal and behavioral changes by voter groups, or by a fundamental change in the make-up of the electorate. But rates of change can differ.

Most Southern states changed party allegiance quickly, as did West Virginia in 2000. It isn’t that Republicans suddenly won every election in those states. Some Democratic officeholders with the strongest grassroots strength held on. But when they left office, their seats flipped to the GOP, first in federal contests and eventually in state legislative races. (Democrats can still be competitive in some contests for state office.)

Of course, not all Southern states flipped simultaneously. The Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton presidencies delayed realignment in their home states, and downscale, white working-class voters in Louisiana and Arkansas retained their Democratic identification longer than white voters elsewhere in the region.

At some point, white voters in these states simply decided that the national Democratic Party had changed and no longer represented them. And those voters moved en masse to the GOP. 

But other realignments over the past 40 years have developed more slowly, the result of evolving voter perceptions about the positioning of the national parties.

Delaware, once a Republican-leaning swing state, is now reliably Democratic. Republican Vermont has moved far to the left. Their shifts – and the shifts of other Northeast states – took years to complete.

California, of course, may be the best example of how one state has shifted over time. A change in the make-up of the state’s electorate moved the state dramatically to the left.

Right now, Virginia appears to be in the process of realigning, moving into the Democratic column. The shift stems from the growth of the Washington, D.C. suburbs. 

Whether Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are realigning is less clear.

Between 2010 and 2016, Wisconsin Democrats have had only one good election, in 2012, when the state elected a Democratic senator (Tammy Baldwin) and was carried by a Democratic president seeking re-election.

Otherwise, Republicans won a seeming endless number of gubernatorial elections (with Scott Walker), recall elections, Senate races (with Ron Johnson), hard fought state Supreme Court races, legislative contests and a presidential election. Of course, most of those contests took place in off-years, when turnout helped the GOP, and with a controversial Democrat in the White House. (Democratic Secretary of State Doug La Follette has been able to swim against the tide.)

In Pennsylvania, recent election results have been more mixed. Trump and Sen. Pat Toomey won victories last year, and the GOP continues to control the Legislature. But Democrats won the governorship in 2014, as well as all three of the other statewide contests (attorney general, auditor and treasurer) in 2016.

Maybe even more important, Democrats swept three hard fought state Supreme Court elections in 2015, giving the party a majority for the first time in half a dozen years. Down-ballot contests often prove a better barometer of fundamental party strength than do high profile, heavily funded races.

Still, the movement of white working-class voters in both the Badger State and the Keystone State surely raises questions about a possible realignment.

Were these Trump voters turning into reliable Republicans, or where they simply voting for the outsider, the candidate representing change after eight years of a Democratic president? Will they vote again?

Were many of them turned off by Hillary Clinton, or had they lost faith in the Democratic Party and all Democratic officeholders? 

And, maybe most important, were those voters voting on jobs and the economy or taking a stand against the Democratic Party’s cultural liberalism?

These are all important questions, since their answers would shed light on the partisan nature of their 2016 vote and on the likelihood that they will hold steadfast to their 2016 allegiance in 2018, 2020 and beyond.

GOP campaign consultant Brad Todd argues that while “economic anxiety” has been a factor in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the Democratic brand has become “completely culturally unacceptable” in the two states among working-class whites.

He also cites the protests against Gov. Scott Walker (R) as significant because media reports repeatedly showed “protesters who worked for the government fighting the man who was working for taxpayers.”

If 2016 was a realignment, it was a shallow one. Yes, the Republican presidential nominee carried Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, but the margins were extremely narrow: just over 44,000 votes out of over 6 million cast in Pennsylvania and under 23,000 out of almost 3 million in Wisconsin.

Since some Obama-Trump voters in both states undoubtedly voted on candidate style and “change” rather than ideology, Republican nominees can’t count on the “Trump coalition” holding in 2018 and beyond. Democrats found that out during the right years of the Obama presidency.

Moreover, if the president fails to deliver on key promises (or reverses himself), some of his 2016 supporters could sour on him, and his party. 

Even more worrisome for Republicans is that even if white working-class voters in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are realigning to the GOP, that demographic group is likely to continue to shrink, not grow, over the next couple of decades. That would make any realignment in those two states very different than the realignments in California or Virginia.

Still, realignments in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania (to say nothing about competitive states like Ohio and Iowa), particularly around cultural issues, could affect near-term elections, including next year’s midterms and the 2020 presidential election. 

Count me as skeptical that the statewide shifts in both states are large enough and long-lasting enough to constitute partisan realignments. But the 2018 and 2020 elections should give us a better handle on what, if anything, has happened in both states.