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Capital City Sunday: Wisconsin flips blue, GOP supports a recount, why the polls were wrong

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11-6 Cap City Guests FSG

MADISON (WKOW) -- Democrats are claiming victory in Wisconsin while Republicans are hesitant to accept the unofficial results as the Trump campaign weighs a recount effort.

Once again, the presidential election in Wisconsin came down to a razor-thin margin. 

Unofficial results show former Vice President Joe Biden leads President Donald Trump by more than 20,000 votes. 

This would mark the fourth time in the last six presidential elections Wisconsin's Electoral College votes were decided by less than one percentage point.

Results in all races remain unofficial until local boards canvass and verify them in the coming days. 

Wisconsin flipped blue after Trump won the state in 2016 by fewer than 23,000 votes, making him the first Republican candidate to win the state since 1984. 

“No matter what the polls said we acted like we were behind and it was a sprint to the finish line and we knew it could have gone the other way,” said Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

Targeting suburban women and surging COVID-19 infections are two key areas Wikler believes helped give Biden an edge over Trump. 

“Women across the state made this their job and their effort shot up turnout for women by 18% relative to 2016 and it was enough to make sure Wisconsin went blue,” he said. 

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin had a significant lead in fundraising compared to the state Republican Party. Democrats raised over $34 million dollars in 2020 compared to $15 million by Republicans. 

Millions were spent on state legislative seats and it resulted in Democrats flipping two seats in the Assembly and winning one in the Senate. Republicans gained two seats in the Senate and fell short of their efforts to gain a supermajority. Wikler says despite their losses, they prevailed in preventing Republicans from graining a veto-proof majority.

“Republicans took their eye off the ball of races we prevailed in...you make a lot of bets and a lot of them don’t work out, but I’m glad we made saving the veto-power a centerpiece of our program and it worked.”

Senator Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point) held on to his seat after Democrats targeted his race in hopes to flip the 34th District. His Democratic opponent Paul Piotrowski raised $840,000 this year, Testin had at least $500,000 available. 

“Their negative ads, negative mailers didn’t mater,” said Sen. Testin. 

As for the presidential race, Testin knew it was going to tight match up and thinks President Trump overperformed in rural areas but not so much in the suburbs.

“We still have some ground to make up in the suburbs as we prepare for the 2022 election.”

When asked whether he stands by the president's unsubstantiated claims of fraud and irregularities in Wisconsin elections, Testin defended the state’s process but raised concerns in other areas. 

“There’s been some anecdotal stories I’ve seen across the county, but in Wisconsin, it’s been looked at there hasn’t [been] a lot of evidence of rampant voter fraud so we'll see—that’s why I think a canvass is so crucial.”

Before the race in Wisconsin was called for Biden, the Trump campaign said they would immediately request a recount, claiming reports of irregularities in several Wisconsin counties. 

Meagan Wolfe, the administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, took issue with the Trump campaign calling their process into question: 

“It is insulting to our local election officials to say that yesterday’s election was anything but an incredible success,” said Wolfe last week in a media briefing with reporters. 

Historically, recounts typically only change the margins by a couple of hundred votes, and that currently wouldn't be enough to beat Biden's lead of more than 20,000, according to preliminary returns.

Former Gov. Scott Walker indicated on Twitter any recount by the Trump campaign will be an "uphill battle."

Preparing for a Recount

Wisconsin does not have automatic recounts, the losing candidate must request one if they are within one percentage point. 

If the Trump campaign filed a petition for a recount, the Wisconsin Elections Commission predicts it could cost more than $3 million. 

Dane County Clerk Scott McDonnell said they are well equipped to handle a recount, but they are already looking at ways to prepare because of the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.

“In 2016 there were up to 60 people in a small room and that’s a way the virus could spread today so we’re thinking of having a much larger area like a convention center if a recount is called,” said McDonnell. 

Another idea would be using high-speed ballot scanners to spread people out more to count ballots more quickly, said McDonnell.

When asked if a recount could make difference as Biden leads by more than 20,000 votes, McDonnell said it’s unlikely.

“The 20,000 votes will not overcome in Wisconsin and it’s true in other states, our election system has so many checks and balances.”

Why the Polls Were Wrong, Again

For the second straight presidential election, many polls were off. 

Even though results are still being finalized, Wisconsin was called for Joe Biden. Since presidential polling began in this election Biden maintained a lead over President Donald Trump.

The latest Marquette University Law School Poll had Biden up by 5 percentage points, but the actual results showed a much tighter race. 

"We included that it could be [a] very high turnout election, which in fact it was, and in that scenario, we had Biden with a 4 point lead, so I would say the poll was only off by 3 or 4 points,” said Marquette University Law School Poll Director Charles Franklin.

Franklin said they made some adjustments after 2016 when polls predicted Hillary Clinton would win Wisconsin.

Despite forecasting the right winner this year, Franklin believes they may have underestimated turnout for Trump.

"Strong Trump supporters that take their cues from him can be very hostel towards pollsters and it becomes very hard to reach them."

Critics point out that a majority of state and national polls showed Trump losing by wide margins, The UW-Madison Election Research Center Poll had Biden up by 9 points.

Walker believes polls are missing the mark because Trump supporters don’t want to respond to polls.

"It was tough four years ago, I believe they made some changes and I think it just got tougher," said Walker. 

When asked if people can have faith in polling again, Franklin said “faith should never be assumed and it should always be viewed skeptically.”

Pollsters also stress people need to pay attention to the margin of error in polls, which in some cases makes up the difference when comparing polls to election results.

Emilee Fannon

Capital Bureau Chief

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