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What 2020 election-watchers may learn from Wisconsin

Democrats drove a big shift to vote-by-mail in Wisconsin – and their candidate won a big victory. Is this a harbinger for a crucial 2020 battleground state?

Alex Kormann/Star Tribune/AP
Catherine Anderson sits with her dog, Ivy, as she votes in the Wisconsin Primary at the Billings Park Civic Center in Superior, Wisconsin, April 7, 2020.

Dear reader:

Ready or not, the November elections are heading our way. And anyone who tells you they know what will happen is fooling themselves. That said, we’re seeing movement afoot that may be significant come Election Day.

Take the stunning Wisconsin election earlier this month, in which an incumbent conservative state Supreme Court justice lost to the liberal challenger by 11 percentage points. Turnout was surprisingly high, given the pandemic and the kerfuffle over the governor’s last-minute effort to postpone the vote. A robust absentee-ballot effort leading up to the April 7 vote proved crucial.

“Absentees going over a million was unprecedented,” Charles Franklin, the state’s premier nonpartisan pollster, told me last week. “So the public adapted, even in the confusion.”

Both parties see Wisconsin as crucial in the 2020 presidential race, as it was in 2016. Now, with the real possibility of widespread vote-by-mail coming into play in November, the evidence that Wisconsin Democrats were more organized and proactive in making the shift has given Republicans pause.

Past studies had shown that shifting from in-person to mail voting (as five states have already done) produced no partisan advantage, and it may be that the Wisconsin disparity was a one-off. But in the short term, the Wisconsin outcome is likely to make President Donald Trump even more skeptical of nationwide vote-by-mail.

More broadly, the surprise Wisconsin result may also show that Democrats were just plain more motivated to vote. The presidential primary was also on the ballot, and proved to be the last opportunity for Democrats to vote for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders before he quit the race. As expected, former Vice President Joe Biden won the primary easily, and Senator Sanders dropped out the next day.

Come November, though, President Trump will be on the ballot – and a huge turnout driver. As Monitor reporter Story Hinckley writes, the COVID-19 crisis has made Trump supporters all the more ardent.

Beyond Wisconsin, look to an expanding map of battleground states, as Politico reported today. From Arizona and Georgia to Nevada and New Hampshire, the pandemic and economic crisis appear to have created opportunities for both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump. If you love politics, as I do, that makes our strange 2020 campaign all the more compelling.

Let us know what you’re thinking at csmpolitics@csmonitor.com.

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