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What makes Wisconsin swing?

News sources and conversation partners lead the way.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) speaks with reporters outside the Capitol.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) speaks with reporters outside the Capitol.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

A few months after majorities of Wisconsin voters re-elected Democrat Tammy Baldwin to the US Senate with a 10-point cushion but only sent Republican Governor Scott Walker packing by a razor-thin margin, the Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez announced that the city of Milwaukee will host the 2020 Democratic National Convention. Given the roughly 12 percent of voters who split their ticket in Wisconsin in 2018, the Badger State is once again a focal point of an upcoming presidential election.

In 2016, Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton famously did not visit Wisconsin during the general election season, though she had made trips to Wisconsin prior to the state’s primary — which Bernie Sanders won.

Former Wisconsin conservative talk radio host, Charlie Sykes wrote in the Atlantic that the DNC’s decision to bring the convention to the Cream City was about showing Wisconsin voters that Democrats will “show up this time.

Voter turnout in Milwaukee was down in 2016, perhaps costing Hillary Clinton Wisconsin’s electoral votes. Clinton’s loss was the latest in a series of devastating blows for Wisconsin Democrats, who lost the governor’s office and Russ Feingold’s Senate seat in 2010 and the presidential vote in 2016.

Now, however, the “Cheesehead Revolution” of Republican success, culminating in 2016 with Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan as speaker of the House, Reince Preibus as President Trump’s first chief of staff, and Scott Walker as the state’s governor is starting to lose steam. Redistricting advantages kept Republicans in control of 64 percent of the seats within the state legislature despite only capturing 46 percent of the popular vote. Today, Democrats hold every statewide elected office but one: Ron Johnson’s US Senate seat.

What is happening in Wisconsin? How is it that more than one in ten voters split their tickets in such a polarized state?

For the past seven years, our Communication and Civic Renewal research group has been studying contentious politics in Wisconsin. We are particularly interested in how the state’s communication ecology interacts with political, economic and social contexts to affect how people engage in politics.

How are Wisconsinites’ information diets related to partisan polarization?

The graphs below show that people’s polarized attitudes are related to how politically diverse the people they talk to are. The further to the right on the horizontal axis, the more people talk politics with a particular group. Using data from several 2012 Marquette Law School Polls, we found that the Wisconsinites who talked more with family and friends — which tend to be more politically homogeneous groups — also expressed more polarized attitudes about Barack Obama, Scott Walker, the Tea Party, and public labor unions.

On the other hand, talking with coworkers — people who tend to have a more diverse set of political beliefs — about politics was associated with slight decreases in polarized attitudes about Walker and Obama.

Who splits their tickets in divided Wisconsin?

In early 2019, we asked 1,015 Wisconsinites in a web-based survey about their media use, political discussion networks, and political behavior in the 2018 midterm elections. In elections that were as close as the 2016 presidential race and the 2018 gubernatorial race in Wisconsin, any factor that is associated with a small deviation in partisan voting could affect who wins and who loses.

We wanted to understand why roughly 12 percent of Wisconsin voters split their ticket in their votes for the US Senate contest between incumbent Democrat Tammy Baldwin and Republican Leah Vukmir (Baldwin won 55 percent to 45 percent) and the Wisconsin governor’s race between Republican incumbent Scott Walker and Democrat Tony Evers (Evers won 49.6 percent to 48.5 percent).

In our survey, we asked voters how often they used a wide variety of news media outlets, including national network news, various cable news outlets, national newspapers, local newspapers, local television, talk radio, conservative and liberal blogs, online-only news sources like Vox, and more. We then constructed measures of whether these sources were primarily liberal (e.g. MSNBC, the Daily Kos) or were primarily conservative (e.g. Fox News, Breitbart). Then, we asked people how often they used these sources so that we could calculate how much people used like-minded sources and sources that challenged their views.

More than 40 percent of our sample reported using news sources that presented a relatively balanced ideological diet. About one-third of respondents’ answers revealed a tilt in the direction of consuming news that fit their own beliefs while less than 13 percent gave greater attention to sources that favored a political perspective other than their own.

How do the media diets of Wisconsin voters relate to split-ticket voting? In the graph below, the horizontal axis represents the level of homogeneous news coverage people reported seeking. The more people used news that provides a wide range of perspectives (the left side of the graphs), the more likely they were to split their ticket at the ballot box.

Those with the most diverse media diets are as likely to split their ticket as not, even when controlling for their partisanship. Those whose media use looks more like an ideological echo chamber almost never split their tickets.

We found a similar, but less substantively large, relationship with discussion networks. In the right panel of the graph, those with diverse political conversation networks have a 25 percent likelihood of splitting their ticket whereas those who talk exclusively to the like-minded virtually never split their votes between candidates of different parties.

With about 22,000 votes keeping Wisconsin from Hillary Clinton in 2016 and 29,000 preventing Scott Walker from holding onto the governor’s seat in 2018, where people get their information about politics could play a decisive role in the Badger State in 2020.


Michael W. Wagner is a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

Jiyoun Suk is a PhD student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

Lewis A. Friedland is a Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

Dhavan V. Shah is Maier-Bascom professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

Jordan Foley, Ceri Hughes, and Josephine Lukito are PhD students in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

Katherine J. Cramer is the Natalie C. Holton Chair of Letters and Science and a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

Chris Wells is an assistant professor of journalism at Boston University.