This year, more Wisconsinites voted than in any other presidential election. But that was not the case in Milwaukee.
Maximizing voter turnout was key to the Democratic Party in the city of Milwaukee, the state’s largest city and a Democratic stronghold. And in the run-up to the election, all eyes were on cities in battleground states, such as Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, that Democrats hoped would be the bulwark to President Donald Trump’s wave of rural, blue-collar voters.
But Milwaukee turnout was virtually the same — and slightly worse in majority-Black wards — as in 2016, when turnout was considered poor and hurt then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
In Wisconsin, voter turnout topped 3.2 million, the highest number of voters in any presidential election (though as a percentage of voting-age adults, not a record). But in Milwaukee, nearly 247,700 people voted, about the same as in 2016.
This time, unofficial results show Democrat Joe Biden emerging the victor with about a 20,000-vote margin over Trump in the state, but more because Biden got a lift from Madison and suburban voters.
“Joe Biden did only marginally better in Milwaukee than Hillary Clinton did,” said John Johnson, a research fellow at the Marquette Law School’s Lubar Center.
In the city as a whole, Biden picked up close to 6,000 more votes than Clinton did four years ago, according to unofficial results. For his part, Trump also won more votes than four years ago: nearly 3,000. Third-party candidates this time around got a smaller share of the vote.
But in majority-Black wards, Biden did worse than Clinton, picking up about 5,100 fewer votes than Clinton did in wards where at least 50% of residents were Black. Turnout was down by about the same amount in those wards.
The poor turnout occurred despite weeks and months of Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts in Milwaukee, meant to prevent a repeat of 2016, when Trump carried Wisconsin by less than a percentage point.
Democratic strategists pushed early and mail-in voting. Souls to the Polls offered free rides to early voting sites and to polling places on Election Day. The Biden campaign flooded the Milwaukee-area airwaves with advertising, and volunteers made calls and sent text messages to encourage voters to cast their ballot on or before Nov. 3.
The poor turnout raises questions about the level of enthusiasm for Biden in Milwaukee, Johnson said, especially in majority-Black neighborhoods in the city’s north side.
“It raises a lot of questions that political analysts will be fretting over in the years to come,” he said.
‘You didn’t inspire them’
Ald. Khalif Rainey, whose district includes some of the wards in Franklin Heights with lower turnout, said the Democratic Party needs to do a better job of connecting with Black voters and putting together a platform that speaks to their issues.
“We need to put something forward that can really electrify the base of our party, and we didn’t see that,” he said. “So I’m not surprised to see that the turnout is as low as it was in 2016.”
Rainey said the onus should not be on the people, but on the candidate to put forward a compelling campaign.
“When you fail to have people turn out, it’s that you didn’t inspire them,” he said.
Many of the Black voters the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel spoke to during early voting and on Election Day were regular voters who seemed more motivated by removing Trump from office than by Biden’s candidacy.
“Anybody’s got to be better than Trump,” Maria Mapp told a reporter at an early voting site last month.
Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing Communities, said turnout could have been worse had it not been for organizations like BLOC, heavily involved in turning out the Black vote.
“I’m proud of the way the city turned out, understanding that in some cases there’s really huge and insurmountable challenges,” she said.
Lang said this year has been incredibly challenging, especially for the Black community, which has been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic and by issues around police brutality.
She said her organization made more than 234,000 phone calls and sent over half a million text messages to potential voters.
“We definitely saw more enthusiasm than we did in 2016,” she said. “But also, we know at the end of the day, we’re still living in the middle of a pandemic and everything that comes with it. … People may have slipped through the cracks.”
Election results also show that Trump was somewhat successful in cutting into Biden’s huge margins in predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods in Milwaukee.
In the most predominantly Black wards, where more than 90% of residents are Black, Biden got almost 2,900 fewer votes than Hillary Clinton in 2016. Meanwhile, in those same wards, Trump gained ground, picking up about 300 more votes than in 2016.
On the south side, in wards where more than two-thirds of residents are Latinx, Biden’s winning margin was nearly 1,200 votes smaller than Clinton’s. He didn’t win as many votes among Latinos as Clinton, and Trump performed better with the group than four years ago.
The state Republican Party has been ramping up outreach to Black and Latinx voters in recent years and opened a campaign office in Milwaukee’s north side earlier this year.
“In the past, we have not focused on the Black and Hispanic community, and I think it was a mistake,” Andrew Hitt, the chair of the state Republican Party, said in an interview last month.
To be sure, the near north and south sides are still heavily Democrat. Biden won the predominantly Black (more than 90%) wards by nearly 21,400 votes, or 95% of the vote, compared to about 800 for Trump.
“Those wards on the north side which saw a shift in the margin toward Donald Trump in 2020 … also are the strongest bastion of support for the Democratic Party in Milwaukee … and that is still true,” Johnson said.
Reporters Craig Gilbert and Jessica Rodriguez, of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, contributed to this story.
Sarah Volpenhein is a Report for America corps reporter who focuses on news of value to underserved communities for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at JSOnline.com/RFA.