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‘They’re not going to stay home’: Counties that flipped in 2016 could determine 2020

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COLUMBIA COUNTY (WKOW) -- Wisconsin is likely to play a pivotal role in the 2020 election, as attention turns to counties that helped elect Donald Trump.

23 Wisconsin counties that voted strongly for President Barack Obama in 2012 flipped to support President Trump four years later.

"The 2016 election really does seem exceptional compared to other recent presidential elections in Wisconsin," said Barry Burden, director of UW-Madison's Elections Research Center. "Democrats had not lost the state in a presidential race since the mid 1980s. So the victory by Trump was a real surprise and I think did reflect some different patterns of voting in the state."

Many of those regions that turned red were rural areas, like Columbia County.

In 2012, Obama won the county by 56 percent, gaining more than 4,000 votes more than Mitt Romney. Trump took Columbia County with 635 more votes than Hillary Clinton. He had a little over 47 percent of the vote there.

Other counties in our area that flipped red include Sauk, Grant, Adams, Juneau, Lafayette and Richland, according to data from the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

Now, all eyes are on those communities to see how they'll vote, as the president falls behind in recent polls.

"The Trump campaign is counting on running up the score in these rural communities. It's his strongest area of support in the state and he needs them to come through in terms of turning out and really supporting the Trump campaign," Burden said. "If there's any flagging of support for Trump in these communities, he will be in real trouble because it's not obvious where else in the state the Trump campaign can make up those votes."

That's why supporters of both candidates are working harder than ever to rally voters behind the parties.

"We're going to hold this county, thanks to the people that elected him in the first place and are helping out this time around," said Eva Neterowicz.

Neterowicz was chair of the Columbia County Republican Party in 2016 and says Republican voters were ready for change four years ago. She says they're even more enthusiastic now.

She now works as a board member for the Polish Americans for Trump organization, which runs a radio show to draw support for the president.

Neterowicz says their efforts have focused less on in person events because of the pandemic, though she attended the president's rally in Janesville. She's confident President Trump has handled COVID concerns well.

"I don't think there's anybody that could have done a faster, more efficient job, having been hit by something completely unexpected," she told 27 News.

Meanwhile, Democrats in Columbia County are just as fired up.

"We were amazed and distressed [when Trump was elected] and decided that wasn't going to happen again. And I think that was part of the reason we saw so much enthusiasm here in 2018. And that we're seeing so much enthusiasm and resolve this time around to make sure that this election goes the way we want it," said Mary Arnold, chair of the Columbia County Democratic Party.

The party rallied support in the county to vote Democrat again in 2018, when Gov. Tony Evers won with about 52 percent in Columbia County, getting nearly 2,000 more votes than former Gov. Scott Walker.

Arnold says voters are concerned about the pandemic and the economy now and want to see change.

"I think people realize there's a lot at stake," she said. "They're not going to stay home this time. They're not going to vote for a third party candidate. They understand that this is just a very crucial election."

In 2016, about 6 percent, more than 165,000 people in Wisconsin, voted for third party candidates. That was up from around 34,000 in 2012.

Barry Burden says the Elections Research Center polls indicate third party candidates will likely not play as big of a role in this election. And he says it appears there are not many who are still undecided.

"Most voters have strong opinions about Donald Trump and view the election as a referendum on Donald Trump and they are mostly dug in and had not been changing their views from one survey to the next over the course of the campaign," he said.

Turnout in 2016 was low, while other states saw more people showing up to vote. So, with early voting taking off in Wisconsin this year, turnout could be a major factor in the outcome of the race.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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