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Flipping Wisconsin: Why Deep Red Districts are Worth Our Effort

Bluebonnet has always prioritized red districts. We believe that investing in out-of-reach districts can make the difference for races up the ticket in battleground states. These campaigns don’t get as much attention, money, or institutional support as tightly-contested races, but they have a greater capacity to generate vote share. In 2020, one of these districts made the difference in the tipping point state. This is why Bluebonnet Data doesn't shy away from red districts. We can make the biggest gains in the districts that are typically ignored.

From July through November 2020, a Bluebonnet team worked with Tom Palzewicz’s campaign in Wisconsin's 5th Congressional district, providing much-needed data support to an under-resourced campaign. Even though the WI-05 district was extremely red, it was ripe for Democratic vote gain: it is extremely white and includes large portions of suburban Milwaukee. In 2018, the suburban-voter-driven “Blue Wave” was clearly seen in the district, which went from a margin of +114,229 for Republicans to a margin of just +87,234. If Democrats could hold or even reduce that margin, it would most likely flip the state for Joe Biden in 2020.

Bluebonnet Data doesn't shy away from red districts. We can make the biggest gains in the districts that are typically ignored.

Tom’s team did not expect to win the Congressional seat, but they did hope to run a strong campaign, make up the vote margin from 2016, and help deliver Wisconsin to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

A Bluebonnet Data team worked with Tom’s campaign to identify “lean Republicans”: those voters who might be turned off by Trump and cast their vote for moderate Democrats like Tom Palzewicz and Joe Biden. Typically, a database like VAN will allow the campaign to use categorization metrics to identify voters’ political standing, but there were more than 200,000 Wisconsin 5th voters in the VAN database with no politically-identifying metrics. The campaign charged their data team to help identify the flippable voters in the district, with the goal of flipping 30,000 votes from 2018.

The team set to work, identifying lean R voters by making use of the public data available to them: Federal Election Committee (FEC) data and the voter file. They first built a list of potential voters by examining organizational donations and labeling donors by ZIP code. The team compared this with historical data to identify trends in donation movement. Identifying the ZIP codes that were steadily trending Democratic would hint at where previously-Republican voters might be most receptive to Tom’s message. With this in mind, the team generated a partisan scoring system to evaluate zip codes, allowing them to narrow in on three zip codes where there were likely a large number of flippable voters.

Then came the key to their analysis: building contact lists in the target zip codes for persuasion campaigns. Data is at the foundation of building an effective campaign, but it takes a clear vision and a focused team to turn data into votes. With the data-driven voter targeting the Bluebonnet team had generated, Tom’s campaign was able to prioritize conversations with high-impact voters, forging relationships across political divides and building on the Democratic gains in 2018 (which few other districts managed to do).

Wisconsin 5th swung more than 68,000 votes to Democrats from 2016 to 2020, more

than accounting for the entire state’s swing from 2016 to 2020 at the presidential level.

When the votes were tallied, the Republican incumbent had received 256,434 votes and Tom Palzewicz had received 179,502. The race still wasn’t that close, but the Palcewicz campaign had done enough to make a massive difference in national politics. Although Tom had not won the seat, he had increased the Democratic margin in WI-05 by 68,297 votes compared to 2016, completely accounting for the state-wide margin gain of +43,430 votes for the Biden-Harris campaign compared with the Clinton campaign. A red district flipped the tipping point state in the most important presidential election of our lifetime – what more reason could there be to start paying attention to typically-ignored districts?

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