Five Key Takeaways from the Wisconsin Supreme Court Election

by Ryan Matsumoto April 22, 2020 · 10:34 AM EDT

A week ago, challenger Jill Karofsky won a hotly contested Wisconsin Supreme Court election, defeating incumbent Daniel Kelly. Even though it was a state race, the results were the latest evidence that the Badger State will be a presidential battleground in November. 

Although Wisconsin judicial elections are technically nonpartisan, Karofsky was known as the liberal candidate backed by Democrats including expected presidential nominee Joe Biden. Kelly was aligned with the state court’s conservative majority and was backed by Republicans including President Donald Trump. Karofsky’s victory reduces conservatives’ majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court from 5-2 to 4-3, giving liberals an opportunity to flip control in the next judicial election (currently slated for 2023).

Here are five key takeaways from the election results:

1. This was a very good result for Democrats. Karofsky defeated Kelly with an impressive margin of 55.3 percent to 44.7 percent. This was a much better performance for Democrats than the previous year, when conservative Brian Hagedorn defeated liberal Lisa Neubauer 50.2 percent to 49.7 percent. It was similar to the 2018 election, when liberal Rebecca Dallet defeated conservative Michael Screnock 55.7 percent to 44.2 percent. Across nine Wisconsin Supreme Court elections since 2008, the liberal candidate has averaged 51.9 percent of the vote.

The Inside Elections Baseline score, which measures average partisan performance in Wisconsin over the past four election cycles, is 48.9 percent Republican and 48.8 percent Democratic. If Biden is able to replicate anything close to Karofsky’s margin in Wisconsin, he will almost certainly win the presidency.

2. The Milwaukee suburbs may be getting friendlier for Democrats. The Milwaukee suburbs have been overwhelmingly Republican in recent decades, even as other northern suburbs have trended toward the Democrats since the 1990s. The three major suburban counties outside Milwaukee are Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington, collectively known as the “WOW” counties. Each county has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1964, and collectively voted for Trump by 28 percentage points in 2016.

One of the major reasons Hagedorn won in 2019 was that he outperformed Trump in the WOW counties with a 38 percentage point margin, making up for underperformance elsewhere in the state. However, Kelly was unable to replicate that success this year, winning the WOW counties by just 24 percentage points. In fact, each of the three WOW counties was among the top 15 counties ranked by increase in liberal vote share since last year’s supreme court election.

Democratic performance in the WOW counties was also impressive if you look at turnout. One way to look at this is by comparing turnout in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary to turnout in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. Turnout was down by 8 percent compared to 2016 due to the coronavirus pandemic, but actually increased in Waukesha (+14 percent), Ozaukee (+12 percent), and Washington (+8 percent) counties. One potential explanation is that Democrats are benefiting from increased enthusiasm among college-educated white voters, a pattern we’ve observed in many elections since Trump took office. Another plausible explanation is that traditionally Republican voters who voted for Hillary Clinton or a third-party candidate in the 2016 general election crossed over to vote in the Democratic primary this year.

3. Karofsky did well in Milwaukee County, but there’s still room for Democratic improvement. The Democrats’ political base in Wisconsin centers around Dane County (which includes the capital of Madison) and Milwaukee County (which includes the city of Milwaukee), the state’s two largest counties by population. One reason why Neubauer lost last year was that her margin of victory in Milwaukee County was 25 percentage points - well below the 37 percentage point margin that Clinton achieved in 2016. This year, Karofsky carried Milwaukee County by a much improved 35 percentage point margin.

Still, there’s plenty of room for Democrats to improve in Milwaukee County. One area to look at is turnout. An analysis by John D. Johnson, a Research Fellow at Marquette Law School, found that turnout as a share of registered voters was just 32 percent in the city of Milwaukee, much lower than many surrounding cities and villages that had over 50 percent turnout. This is notable because the city of Milwaukee is more diverse and more Democratic than the rest of Milwaukee County. Part of the problem definitely could have been the fact that just five out of 180 in-person polling places were open on election day in Milwaukee. Nonetheless, improving base turnout, particularly among African-Americans, will be very important for Biden in November.

4. The coronavirus pandemic negatively impacted turnout. In 2016 (the last time Wisconsin had a supreme court election coinciding with a presidential primary), 1,953,147 votes were cast in the supreme court election. This year, 1,549,446 votes were cast in the supreme court election, a decrease of 21 percent.

Total votes cast also declined 8 percent relative to 2016 in the Democratic presidential primary. It seems likely that the coronavirus pandemic was a big contributor to the decline in turnout. Across 21 states that had Democratic presidential primaries in both 2016 and 2020, the total number of votes cast increased by an average of 18 percent. In fact, the total number of votes cast increased in all but three states. Apart from Wisconsin, the two other exceptions were Illinois and Oklahoma. Illinois held its primary on March 17, and had substantially less vote-by-mail than Florida and Arizona, which held their primaries the same day. Oklahoma may be a special case because it has many white working class ‘ancestral Democrats’ who shifted to the right over time and may have stopped voting in Democratic primaries because of their strong support for Trump.

The negative impact of the coronavirus pandemic on voter turnout is a significant concern heading into the general election. Election officials should ensure that vote-by-mail is an option, open enough polling places to avoid long lines, and make sure that social distancing guidelines are followed at the ballot box.

5. The presidential race in Wisconsin remains a toss-up. Although the judicial candidate backed by Democrats won with an impressive margin of victory, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Wisconsin is a slam dunk for Democrats in November. The supreme court election occurred concurrently with the Democratic presidential primary, which probably boosted Democratic turnout (this was before Sen. Bernie Sanders dropped out of the race). Democrats may have also been extra motivated to vote in defiance of the Republican-dominated legislature and judiciary, both of which refused to postpone the election to a later date.

Early polling for Wisconsin suggests the state will be a toss-up in November. According to the RealClearPolitics average through April 21, Biden led Trump by 2.7 percentage points. Since Biden’s poll numbers have been a tad stronger in Michigan and Pennsylvania, there is a good chance that Wisconsin will be the “tipping-point state” yet again.