In 2016, Wisconsin helped to swing the presidential vote for Donald Trump, a Republican. And four years later, it helped swing the vote the other way, for Joe Biden, the Democrat.
Meanwhile, the state has a supermajority of Republicans in its state Legislature and a Democrat (Tony Evers) in the governor’s mansion.
And in the U.S. Senate, the state has one Republican (Ron Johnson) and one Democrat (Tammy Baldwin).
So, is the state red or blue?
It’s an age-old question that will play out again in 2024, when Wisconsin is expected to be one of a handful of states that could decide the presidential outcome. So, with about a year before that election, we decided to come back to a claim we set aside earlier this year when we first came across it.
In a May 30, 2023 Politico article about Wisconsin’s political landscape, former Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, claimed his own 2010 win was an “exception” and that the state isn’t red or even purple, as many claim.
“Wisconsin has historically been,” Walker said, “and I think largely continues to be, a blue state.”
Let’s take a deeper look.
Wisconsin has a mix of Republican and Democratic leaders
When we asked Walker about the claim, spokesperson Jim Dick replied with a screen shot of a listing of recent U.S. presidential results in Wisconsin, going back to the re-election of Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Reagan won that election in Wisconsin, but following him was a series of Democrats – Michael Dukakis (1988), Bill Clinton (1992 and 1996), Al Gore (2000), John Kerry (2004) and Barack Obama (2008 and 2012.) Then, of course, came Trump and then Biden.
So yes, Wisconsin has voted for a lot of Democratic presidential candidates in the past four decades.
But that ignores a key factor – the tightness of the recent races. For instance, four of the last 6 races were decided by less than one percentage point.
When we asked for more information, Dick doubled down on Walker’s claim.
“While some races have been close, every presidential election since Reagan has favored the Democrat except for one – and that was largely because Hillary Clinton literally ignored the state after she lost the primary,” Dick wrote, referring to 2016.
“The advantage Democrats have in Wisconsin is that they have a large concentration of votes within the urban areas of the state. High turnout in those areas counter the other parts of the state that are strongly Republican, leaning Republican, or toss up. Legislative Republicans have done well in competitive districts which is why they have large margins (in) the state Legislature.”
Walker undermines his own statement here, describing what, essentially, is a purple Wisconsin.
Barry Burden, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Elections Research Center, said the situation in the state is not as black and white … er, blue and red, as Walker claimed.
“It seems factually incorrect to call Wisconsin a blue state,” he said via email, adding Wisconsin is actually remarkably balanced between Democrats and Republicans.
He called the fact Democrats frequently win the presidential election a “misleading indicator.”
“In addition, during that time Democrats were generally winning the national popular vote,” he said. “Democrats won more votes nationwide in 7 out of the last 8 presidential elections. So it is more accurate to describe Wisconsin (as) representative of national trends in presidential elections.”
Craig Gilbert, who spent 22 years as the Washington Bureau Chief for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is now a Lubar Fellow at the Marquette Law School, said that it would make more sense to describe Wisconsin as a whole as purple, when you look at elections across the board, state and federal.
“I don’t know how you get more purple than Wisconsin has been over the past decade. It is true that Democrats have been more successful in big statewide elections in the Trump Era (especially 2018-2023). But Republicans were more successful in the previous period (2010 to 2016),” he said via email.
“In fact, if you compare how Wisconsin votes for president these days to the national popular vote, Wisconsin is MORE Republican than the nation as a whole, which is hard to square with the idea of it being a ‘blue state.’ (In other words, Wisconsin was decided by less than a point in 2016 and 2020 while Democrats won the national presidential vote by roughly 2 and 4 points respectively.”
“You can cherry-pick which offices you want to look at and what time frame you want to look at it to make the case that Wisconsin is traditionally blue-leaning or red-leaning,” Gilbert said. “And there is no objective truth to this question. But I honestly don’t know how Wisconsin could have a more ‘purple’ recent history — and present.”
Walker claimed that “Wisconsin has historically…and I think largely continues to be, a blue state.”
While Wisconsin has voted for more Democratic presidential candidates than Republican presidential candidates in recent history, Wisconsin’s political landscape is much more nuanced, with a Republican supermajority in the Legislature, a Democratic governor and a mix of the parties in Congress.
So, no, Wisconsin isn’t exactly blue.
We rate this claim Mostly False.