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The Republican presidential vote margin in the WOW counties fell from 132,536 in 2012 to 96,725 in 2020, a net decline of 35,811 votes.
Political polling and elections experts say that while Trump has made gains in rural parts of the state, his support in Wisconsin’s WOW (Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington, all in suburban Milwaukee area) has declined.
Some of Wisconsin's top Republicans decried a recent decision from a Manhattan grand jury to indict former President Donald Trump in connection with payments made to a porn star in 2016.
However, even before Trump was indicted, former U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, openly questioned whether the former president should lead the 2024 GOP ticket.
"WOW county swing suburban voters don't vote for Donald Trump," Ryan said Feb. 23, 2023, on WISN-TV’s "UpFront" program. "And we will lose this state again if he's our nominee, and I really believe we will win this state if we have a nominee not named Trump."
Ryan was referring to three suburban Milwaukee counties that have long been pivotal for Republican success in statewide elections: Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington, or WOW.
Ryan also has said he would not attend the 2024 Republican National Convention in Milwaukee if Trump is the party’s nominee.
We found Ryan’s statement on the former president intriguing enough to set it aside for when we had time to work on it: Is it true that WOW counties do not support Trump?
When asked for backup for Ryan’s claim, spokesman Kevin Seifert said his boss believes Republicans will lose Wisconsin in 2024 if Trump is the nominee.
"This is because," he said, "swing suburban voters in the WOW counties don’t vote for former President Trump at levels comparable to other Republican candidates not named Trump."
Taking a look at the margins in those three counties in recent presidential elections, we see that with Trump at the top of the ticket, the margin of victory for the GOP candidate decreased, falling below 30 percentage points. Indeed, in 2020, Trump’s winning margin fell by 5 percentage points from his own race four years earlier:
2000: George W. Bush beat Al Gore by 34 percentage points
2004: Bush beat John Kerry by 36 points
2008: John McCain beat Barack Obama by 32 points
2012: Mitt Romney beat Obama by 35 points
2016: Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 28 points
2020: Trump beat Joe Biden by 23 points
A swing voter, of course, is someone who may not be affiliated with a particular political party or who votes across party lines.
Seifert said Ryan believes swing suburban voters account for much of Trump’s underperformance – and these particular voters in the WOW counties have voted (and will continue to vote) for other Republican candidates at higher levels than they have done (and will do) for Trump.
An April 2020 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis concluded that the WOW counties are still Republican, but they became less so in the Trump era, especially Ozaukee and Waukesha. According to the analysis by then-Washington bureau chief Craig Gilbert:
In the 2016 presidential race, Waukesha and Ozaukee counties delivered much smaller margins for Donald Trump than they had for Republican nominee Mitt Romney four years earlier.
In the 2018 race for governor, Waukesha and Ozaukee delivered much smaller margins for Republican Scott Walker than they did for Walker in 2014.
In both cases, Republicans lost more ground in Waukesha and Ozaukee than they did anywhere else in Wisconsin.
We’ve now seen the same pattern of GOP erosion in the southeastern Wisconsin suburbs in 2016, 2018 and 2020 — in contests for president, governor and the state’s highest court.
So, what’s with the WOW counties?
Their declining performance for Republicans parallels a national trend that has accelerated in the age of Trump: a growing gap between blue-collar voters and college-educated suburbanites, and between rural communities and metropolitan areas.
Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School poll, noted the Republican presidential vote margin in the WOW counties fell from 132,536 in 2012 – when Romney was at the top of the ticket – to 96,725 in 2020, a net decline of 35,811 votes.
"Under Trump, the GOP lost strength in the WOW counties compared to under Romney in 2012," Franklin said.
Barry Burden, professor of political science and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Trump has not fared as well as other Republicans in suburban communities – both locally and nationally.
"That puts Trump in jeopardy when running in Wisconsin because the WOW counties -- which are heavily suburban -- are responsible for almost one out of five Republican votes in the state," Burden said in an email to PolitiFact Wisconsin.
He added: "Trump has helped Republicans win over more rural voters and that has allowed the party to remain competitive in statewide elections despite getting slightly less support in the WOW counties and other suburban areas."
Ryan claimed "WOW county swing suburban voters don't vote for Donald Trump."
He was speaking in broad strokes, of course, as Trump outpolled his opponents in those three counties each time. Clearly some people there voted for him.
But the numbers – along with political and polling experts – make clear Trump has fared worse than other Republicans in those counties, and experts say swing voters are to blame. Indeed, he won by far fewer percentage points in 2020 than four years earlier.
For a statement that is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing, our rating is True.
WISN ‘UpFront" ‘One-on-one with former House Speaker Paul Ryan,’" Feb. 23, 2023
Wisconsin Public Radio "Is The 'Cheesehead Revolution' Over?," April 30, 2018.
USA Today "I won't even think about leaving': Trump at CPAC says indictment wouldn't push him out of 2024 race," March 5, 2023.
Politico "Scenes from CPAC 2023," March 5, 2023
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Ron Johnson and other Wisconsin congressional Republicans slam indictment of Donald Trump, March 31, 2023.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "The suburban 'WOW counties,' traditionally a GOP fortress in Wisconsin, show signs of cracks," April 20, 2020.
Email Kevin Seifert, spokesman for Paul Ryan, March 2, 2023
Email, Charles Franklin, Marquette University, March 3, 2023
Email, Barry Burden, University of Wisconsin - Madison, March 6, 2023
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, Twitter, March 30, 2023
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