MADISON (WKOW) -- While Dane County has long been known as politically active, the growth in its population, and turnout, has given it considerably more influence on statewide election outcomes.
The margin of victory for former Vice President Joe Biden over President Donald J. Trump amounted to more than 181,000 votes among Dane County voters. That figure is about 35,000 more than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's margin of victory over Trump in Dane County in 2016. In the 2020 election, the state has unofficially been decided by about 20,000 votes.
"It really is interesting how Dane County has emerged really as the most important county in the state for winning statewide races," said UW-Madison political science professor David Canon.
Biden's 181,000+ vote margin was almost equivalent to his edge of about 182,000 votes in Milwaukee County, the state's most populous. With 160,000 fewer votes, Canon said it was an incredibly impressive turnout.
For the first time, we actually had the margin in those two counties almost identical," Canon said.
Both Canon, and Republican strategist Bill McCoshen, said Dane County's population growth, unmatched anywhere else in the state, figures to make it even more important to future statewide contests.
"I think we're maxed out in the other 70 counties," McCoshen said. "So we have to do better in Dane and Milwaukee counties if we wanna win statewide."
McCoshen, who served as campaign manager for then-Governor Tommy Thompson, said he did not believe Trump's blueprint for victory in Wisconsin -- based almost entirely on rallying rural voters -- would be sustainable.
Trump was still able to increase his vote count across the state by nearly 200,000 by widening the gap between himself and his Democratic opponent in rural areas in the state's northern and western regions.
McCoshen said, with Dane County's growth, future Republican candidates need to close the gap in the state's urban areas.
"Donald Trump got the highest vote total of any Republican statewide in the history of Wisconsin so I don't know if there's more juice to squeeze there," McCoshen said.
Lisa Aarli believed efforts to register and turnout young, first-time voters also explains how Dane County can provide a pivotal edge for Democratic candidates.
"I think what voters we're seeing now in the last few years is more and more young people registering to vote, Aarli said. "So finding new ones has definitely been a goal this year."
Affecting the Future
McCoshen said he believed Republicans, with traditional messaging around less regulations and lower tax rates, could allow GOP candidates to keep margins more narrow in Dane and Milwaukee counties.
"Republicans have ignored this area for too long," he said. "They have an agenda that should be appealing to people, at least in the suburbs, and they've got to do a better job of communicating it."
Canon said, on the other side of the political spectrum, Democrats would be wise to avoid banking on solely driving turnout in Madison and Milwaukee. He said a sustainable model for a consistently-winning Democratic operation would also focus on mid-sized cities like Racine, Eau Claire and Green Bay. Canon said the party should also focus on being reasonably competitive in rural areas.
But with the rapid population growth in Dane County, he said Republicans could especially not afford to focus entirely on firing up voters in conservative strongholds.
"I think that strategy of playing the base probably is not going to be a long-term strategy that works in the state given its demographics," Canon said.
The next statewide elections will come in 2022 when U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (R-Oshkosh) and Governor Tony Evers (D) are up for re-election.
Perils of Polarization
While Wisconsin has lived up to its reputation as a purple state with yet another presidential election decided by less than one percentage point, how it gets there has changed.
Democratic candidates were increasingly uncompetitive in a number of rural counties. Canon pointed to 33 counties where Trump outran his 2016 margin while Biden flipped only two counties Trump won four years ago.
Meanwhile, Biden took the state by making Milwaukee, Madison and their inner suburbs even more blue. Aarli said she believed it was a sign of deepening partisan loyalties.
"Over the last several years in Wisconsin, I would say that definitely, people identify with a particular party (over policy agreements)," Aarli said. "And they may feel a strong connection to that."
McCoshen said he believed both politicians and citizens had a responsibility to reduce the tensions and other-isms that stem from such polarization. Canon also described the ongoing changes as a troubling trend.
"I'm deeply concerned about the polarization of American politics more generally," Canon said. "Here in Wisconsin, we see it on a regular basis and the divide seems to be getting deeper."