Swing state analysis: Top issues for Wisconsin voters in the 2024 presidential election

Wisconsin has played a key role in the last several presidential elections and 2024 will be no different. 

Four of the past six presidential elections have been decided by less than a percentage point in the state, so it's gotten a bit of a reputation for turning out incredibly close margins. 

The past two elections fit that bill, when Donald Trump broke the so-called "blue wall" in the state and won in 2016, the first time a Republican presidential candidate had done so since Reagan in 1984.

Here’s a look back at the state’s recent voting history and what voters are focused on this election. 

Wisconsin fast facts

  • Population: 5.9 million
  • Governor: Tony Evers (Democratic Party)
  • Electoral college votes: 10 (out of 270 needed to win)
  • Wisconsin allows absentee voting, and clerks cannot start processing absentee ballots until the polls open on Election Day.
  • Wisconsin does not have party registration, which is a factor that makes it hard to predict results.
  • Wisconsin allows same-day voter registration, a factor that makes it hard to predict how many people may vote.

Is Wisconsin a swing state?

Yes, Wisconsin is considered a swing state after it "flipped" for Donald Trump in 2016.

"It's one of just a handful of states that has been won by Trump in 2016 and lost in 2020," explained Julia Azari, a political science professor at Marquette University. "And historically, it's been just a very competitive state."

"We've seen a number of presidential elections here come down to really razor thin margins, and it's seen as one of the country's toss-up states, one of those swing states that really dictate who wins the White House," FOX 6 Milwaukee’s political reporter Jason Calvi said. "So we often say the road to the White House runs right through Wisconsin."

Calvi says a look back at the state’s local elections in 2022 reinforces how much of a toss-up the vote can be.

"We had a Senate race and we had a governor's race in Wisconsin. And, you know, we are a swing state. And guess what happened in 2022? We swung both ways," he said. "The state re-elected a Democratic governor and re-elected a Republican senator."

How Wisconsin voted in 2016

Donald Trump won Wisconsin’s vote in 2016 by less than a percentage point, 0.7%, which was a difference of about 22,700 votes.

Calvi explained that many rural areas across the state that may have historically or previously voted for a moderate Democrat turned to Trump in 2016.

Notably, Calvi explained that Kenosha County was one of the major areas that "flipped" for Trump and has continued to vote more conservatively since.

Kenosha County is one of the southernmost counties in the state and borders Illinois. It has gotten national attention because of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in 2020 and subsequent protests that included Kyle Rittenhouse’s shootings of three people, two of which were fatal. Rittenhouse was acquitted on all charges in 2021.

How Wisconsin voted in 2020

Joe Biden won Wisconsin’s vote in 2020 also by less than a percentage point, 0.63%, so even narrower than 2016 and by a margin of about 20,600 votes.

Trump has falsely claimed for years, including at a Wisconsin rally, that he won the state in 2020. Government and outside investigations have uniformly found no evidence of widespread voter fraud that could have swung the 2020 election.

Professor Azari said these false narratives could pop back up again in November if people may not otherwise understand Wisconsin’s makeup and election rules. 

"I want people to sort of think critically about those narratives and pay attention to the reality on the ground," she said. 

"There’s a blue shift (in votes as election night goes on) because we have a city that's so much more populated than the rest of the state (Milwaukee), and also it's not unusual to see more people vote than were registered to vote the day before because of same-day registration."

Key issue in Wisconsin: The economy

Similar to the rest of the country, Azari and Calvi agreed the economy is top-of-mind for Wisconsinites right now. 

"Wisconsin has a relatively high number of voters who do not have a college degree. So I think these sorts of questions about manufacturing jobs, about these sort of more regional or national industries, the kind of jobs that aren't necessarily in tech or that can't necessarily be done remotely - those are really important," Azari explained. 

And the cost of living and inflation are other economic aspects weighing heavily. 

"Rents have skyrocketed. We have a large percentage of the city of Milwaukee that's rent burdened, meaning that they're paying more than what economists recommend for their housing," Calvi said.

Milwaukee skyline with Menomonee River in foreground, WI. (Photo by: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

He said Wisconsinites are seeing political ads focusing heavily on inflation and the economy, and also are hearing about these topics when candidates come to town. 

"You're having the Biden administration come through frequently for press conferences, announcements, … kind of touting all of these (federal) spending plans that are helping," Calvi said. "But at the end of the day, people are still experiencing the crunch from inflation. And so there is skepticism in Wisconsin right now about the economy. And right now, when you look at the polls, they favor former President Donald Trump on that particular issue."

What Trump is saying

"On the Republican side, they're blaming inflation and the rising costs that we're experiencing on the Biden administration policies and government spending on some of those pandemic relief funds, the Infrastructure Act, all those sorts of things that have passed that were huge dollar items for the federal government to pass," Calvi explained. 

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What Biden is saying

"You're seeing Democrats really trying to say the economy is turning around. They're saying that this was a rebound from COVID-19 and the pandemic in 2020," he offered.

Key issue in Wisconsin: Abortion

Currently, abortions are allowed for up to 20 weeks in Wisconsin, but the politics behind it are complicated - and also still a bit in limbo.   

"Wisconsin is a state where we have a Republican legislature, a Democratic governor, and a trigger law from the 1840s. And actually, no statewide policy referendum," Azari explained. "So there isn't a way to do what some states have done and vote on that issue directly as a state. And I think as a result of that situation, that might heighten the issue in Wisconsin."

Calvi added that abortion was one of the main issues that state candidates focused on in 2022, when the Democratic governor was re-elected the same night as a Republican senator. 

What Trump is saying

Trump has repeatedly taken credit for the overturning of a federally guaranteed right to abortion — having nominated three of the justices who overturned Roe v. Wade — but has resisted supporting a national abortion ban and says he wants to leave the issue to the states. 

He has declined to detail his position on women’s access to the abortion pill mifepristone.

RELATED: 'Right to IVF Act' blocked by Senate Republicans in latest battle

What Biden is saying

Biden and Democrats say the fallout over reproductive health in the U.S. is a reason to reelect the president.

His campaign held dozens of events in battleground states to mark the June 24 anniversary of Roe v. Wade’s overturn. 

Key issue in Wisconsin: Immigration

Along party lines, Republican Wisconsinites are paying attention to how immigration is affecting them at home. 

Wisconsin hasn’t seen any transportation of migrants to the state, Calvi explained, although Chicago has, which is notable for southern border cities. 

"One of the ways that it is becoming partially a major issue in Wisconsin is because of the fentanyl crisis," he said. "You know, we have had counties issuing these emergency alerts; we've just seen the numbers spiking in recent years of people dying of overdoses. It's even in one of the polls in recent months, we saw how this particular issue was top of mind for voters like dealing with the fentanyl issue. 

"And so Republicans have definitely said, you know, the border is not secure or, you know, drugs are getting in through the borders. And, so they have definitely been making an issue with some of their campaign visits and some of their roundtable discussions they've had with police officers and law enforcement, where they've talked about what's going on at the southern border and how it's impacting Wisconsin."

What Trump is saying

Immigration has been Trump’s signature issue during his 2024 bid to return to the White House. 

Trump often says during his rallies that immigrants who are in the country illegally endanger public safety, and steal jobs and government resources, and once suggested that they are "poisoning the blood of our country." He has promised to carry out the largest deportation operation in U.S. history if elected.

Though in a sharp departure from anti-immigration rhetoric, in June, he said in an interview that he wants to automatically give green cards to foreign students who graduate from U.S. colleges.

What Biden is saying

Biden accuses Trump of preying on fears about immigrants, and has taken acts on immigration recently on both sides of the coin as he’s faced disapproval of his handling of the border throughout his presidency. 

In June, he issued an executive order that would halt asylum processing at the border with Mexico. Several weeks later, he ordered an expansive action to allow certain spouses of U.S. citizens without legal status to apply for permanent residency and eventual citizenship. 

READ MORE: Poll finds fewer Americans see benefits from immigration

Key issue in Wisconsin: Foreign policy

Wisconsin saw a notable number of so-called protest votes against President Biden in their primary, like some other states such as Minnesota and Michigan, to signal dissatisfaction with his support of Israel in its war against Hamas in Gaza. 

In fact, 48,000 people voted "uninstructed" in April - which is more than double the amount of Biden’s victory margin in 2020 when he won by about 20,600 votes.

RELATED: ‘Uncommitted’ vote campaign against Biden: Super Tuesday results

"We saw some protests at the University of Wisconsin, as well as University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, where we had people camping out for days at a time," Calvi said. "So the question is, are those people that voted "uninstructed," the 48,000, are they still going to turn away from Joe Biden in November? That's still an open question."

What Trump is saying

Trump has long labeled himself the most pro-Israel president in the nation’s history and often notes his decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, but hasn’t said much about the ongoing war, which some experts theorize is intentional. 

In April, Trump said in a radio interview with conservative host Hugh Hewitt that Israel is "absolutely losing the PR war" and urged the country to "get it over with." 

But Trump has also had a tense relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since he left the White House. Though the two were close allies for years, the former president responded with fury after the Israeli leader congratulated then-President-elect Biden for winning the 2020 election while Trump was still trying to overturn the results.

What Biden is saying

Biden has pledged support for Israel in their efforts against Hamas, but tensions between him and Netanyahu have been seeping into the public as the war goes on and global criticism grows over how Israeli military operations are affecting the Palestinian population in Gaza. 

The Biden administration has supported sending and continues to send emergency humanitarian assistance into Gaza.

Wisconsin counties to watch on election night

Wisconsin has a fairly stark division between its urban and rural counties that has only become more divided in recent years, Azari explained. So in terms of "unpredictability," there isn’t really one county to look out for. 

But there are still places to look towards for clues.

"The one that gets a lot of attention here is Dane County, which is where Madison is located - not because it's competitive, but because of the turnout. And that will also be the case for Milwaukee County, where Milwaukee is located. There's a lot of variation in turnout," she said.

"Democratic voting patterns are strong here. But the question is sort of, will African American voters turn out? … Will young voters turn out, et cetera. So those are two counties I think people are watching for turnout reasons."

And on the Republican side, Calvi says Waukesha County - in the so-called "WOW" tri-county area - is where the GOP vote has the opportunity to shine. 

"The largest share of Republican votes in the entire state is Waukesha County. It's a crucial county. Republicans really need to build up the score in Waukesha County, because there's so many Republican voters there," he said.

On election night, Calvi said he’ll be watching Waukesha and Kenosha, the southern county mentioned earlier that "flipped" for Trump in 2016, to look for clues as to how Trump is doing in the early results. 

"If it's in the 50s (percentage points), that's some really big red warning lights going off that things are not looking good for that Republican candidate on election night," he said.

What else the experts are watching in Wisconsin

The Black vote

As mentioned, the Black voter turnout in Wisconsin could play a major role in who takes the state. 

"Voting in Milwaukee peaked under President Obama. So the numbers surged at that point in Milwaukee, and they have not gotten back up to where they were in Milwaukee since Obama was on the ballot. And, you know, that's a crucial Democratic city," Calvi said.

Milwaukee hosting national conventions 

Milwaukee was set to host the 2020 Democratic National Convention, but that was moved almost entirely online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This election, Milwaukee is hosting the Republican National Convention starting July 15.

"When you have 20,000 votes separating (the candidates in the last election), any focus on the state is potentially going to help," Calvi said. "Is it going to motivate voters? Is it going to sway them? I can't say."

The Democratic National Convention is being held in Chicago beginning Aug. 19. 

Wisconsin absentee votes

Wisconsin allows absentee voting, and clerks cannot start processing absentee ballots until the polls open on Election Day.

As mentioned, that late addition of absentee votes was a point of contention for Trump in his bid to snuff out Biden’s win. Milwaukee’s absentee votes weren’t added to the count in 2020 until the middle of the night, Calvi explained, and he reminded that the same late addition of absentee ballot count from the city is expected in November. 

Wisconsin’s primary vote

Wisconsin’s presidential primary happened in April, so the vote has been in for months. But the results are still telling, and the state's fate could lie in the voters who didn’t vote for Trump or Biden.

As mentioned, 48,000 Democratic voters turned away from Biden to vote "uninstructed", and Calvi explained that Trump won 80% of the Republican primary vote, meaning 20% of Republican primary voters did not vote for him in Wisconsin in April. 

"Are all of the 48,000 "uninstructed" Democratic primary voters going to come home to Joe Biden? Are all of the 20% of Republican primary voters who didn't vote for Trump, are they going to come home for him this fall? That's an open question," Calvi said. "And the candidates are really going to need to work on that issue over the coming months to really try to win Wisconsin."

2024 swing states: Read more

This story was reported from Detroit.