The graph compares the performance of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016 to that of Jill Karofsky, the liberal-backed candidate for State Supreme Court justice in 2020. The gain in votes for the more liberal candidate is shown in the gray bar. (Daily Yonder)

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Rural voters in Wisconsin were part of a wholesale move to the left in last week’s surprise state Supreme Court victory of the liberal-backed candidate, Dane County Judge Jill Karofsky.

Karofsky unseated state Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly by a margin of more than 10 points. Kelly, who had the endorsement of Donald Trump, was widely favored to win the race.

Kelly, the conservative-backed candidate, narrowly won among rural voters. (Wisconsin Supreme Court elections are nominally nonpartisan.) But his 3-point margin among nonmetropolitan (or rural) voters was unexpectedly thin. In 2016, President Donald Trump won Wisconsin’s rural voters by 20 points.

When we use the Karofsky/Kelly Supreme Court justice race as a surrogate for the national presidential contest, we see broad movement toward the Democratic side of the ledger in Wisconsin, compared to 2016 presidential contest. A nonpartisan judicial race might not be the best stand-in for a presidential election. But in this case, with Trump’s endorsement on the line, and the national attention the race received because of partisan fights over how and when the election should proceed, it gives us more than a hint about where the Wisconsin vote is trending.

The graph above compares Karofsky’s performance (shown in red) with Hillary Clinton’s performance in 2016. (County category descriptions are at the bottom of the story.)

Democrats, or the more liberal candidate, in Karofsky’s case, improved their margins across the board in every category of county the Daily Yonder normally tracks. The gains were largest in medium-sized metropolitan counties (metros with populations of 250,000 to under 1 million). This includes the metropolitan areas of Madison and Green Bay.

But Karofsky’s gains compared to Clinton’s performance in 2016 were also substantial in small metropolitan areas (counties in metros with 50,000 to under 250,000 residents) and nonmetropolitan areas.

Karofsky improved on Clinton’s rural performance by about 10 points. She made rural a horse race in areas where Trump blew the doors off Clinton in 2016.

Rural voters account for about a quarter of votes cast in the election.

Karofsky amassed her largest margins in the core counties of medium-sized metros (Madison and Green Bay) and central Milwaukee. She drew within 3 points of the incumbent justice with nonmetropolitan voters. (Daily Yonder)

The Wisconsin Supreme Court election became nationalized through Trump’s endorsement of Kelly and during partisan fighting whether to proceed with the presidential primary. Democrats sought to delay the vote and add ways for people to vote by mail because of the pandemic. Republicans fought the move and gained the support of the state Supreme Court in calling for the election to move ahead.

Despite the threat of the coronavirus, turnout wasn’t too far off the 2016 election, except in the core counties of the Milwaukee metropolitan statistical area. In Milwaukee, voting officials cut the number of polling sites from the normal 180 to five. Turnout there was just 75% of the 2016 level.

In other types of counties, turnout ranged from 110% of 2016 in the suburban counties of the Milwaukee metropolitan area to 89% of 2016 levels in small metropolitan areas.

In the presidential race, Joe Biden easily defeated Bernie Sanders, who ended his candidacy the day after the primary. As in other primaries since South Carolina on February 29, the preferences of rural and metropolitan voters did not differ significantly.

County Categories

  • Major Metro Core: The core counties of metropolitan statistical areas of 1 million residents or more.
  • Major Metro Suburbs: Major metro counties outside the urban core.
  • Major Metro Exurbs: Major metro counties outside the urban core where the population is at least 50% rural, using the Census definition.
  • Medium Metro Core: The core counties of metropolitan statistical areas of 250,000 to under 1 million residents.
  • Medium Metro Suburbs: Medium metro counties outside the urban core.
  • Small Metro: Metropolitan statistical areas with under 250,000 residents.
  • Nonmetro (Florida chart): Counties outside a metropolitan area
  •  Nonmetro Adjacent (Illinois chart): Nonmetropolitan counties that are adjacent to a metropolitan area.
  • Nonmetro Nonadjacent (Illinois chart): Nonmetropolitan counties that are not adjacent to a metropolitan area.