In the run-up to the this year's election, the New Yorker ran a Paul Noth cartoon of a Kremlin-esque war room, with high ranking officials sitting around the United State's red-blue electoral map. The caption:
"In the end, it all comes down to Waukesha County"
Waukesha County, as many political nerds know, delivers the single biggest pot of votes to Republicans in the fertile "WOW" set of suburban Milwaukee counties (Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington). In order to win statewide, a Republican typically needs to run up big margins in the WOW counties, keep margins in check in the dem strongholds of Dane and Milwaukee counties, win the Fox Valley region around Green Bay by about ten points, and roughly break even in the rest of the state.
In 2012, Mitt Romney won Waukesha and the two other WOW counties by about a 133,000 vote margin, but lost the state by a 213,000 vote or 7 percent—to President Obama. This past election, Trump won the WOW counties by only a 105,000 vote margin—28,000 fewer than Romney's losing effort. In fact, if you look at the previous four presidential elections in Wisconsin, Trump's margin in the WOW counties was about 20 percent below the average.
On the other hand, Clinton won the Dem strongholds of Dane and Milwaukee by a 309,000 vote margin—about the same margin as Obama's 310,000 edge over Romney in 2012. That's about a 20 percent higher margin of victory than the previous four presidential elections in Wisconsin.
This all went down as predicted by the Clinton campaign. They had looked at their internal polling data, said to themselves, “he's hurting in his strongholds and we're doing well in ours,” high-fived all involved, and put Wisconsin in the trophy case.
Yes, they thought, Trump might do better than Romney and other recent Republican candidates in other parts of the state, but with Clinton doing 20 percent better in her strongholds and Trump doing 20 percent worse in his, the challenge would just be impossible to overcome.
And then, the impossible happened.
As has been widely reported, Democrats did far worse than usual in rural counties where they typically win, and Republicans doubled their margins in the rural places where they usually win, but the biggest pot of votes definitely came from the Fox Valley and other heavy-manufacturing counties:
Still, in an election of nearly three million votes, the final tally was a razor thin margin of a little over twenty thousands votes. While Dems concede that they grossly miscalculated the potency of Trump's fair trade /manufacturing jobs argument in the rustier parts of this Rust Belt state, they contend that margins were so out of whack in many counties that something must be askew.
To add further drama, it appears that there is a correlation between counties with the highest divergence from the voter margin of the past four elections and those that used touch screen voting machines.
The theory is that the Russians, in their umpteenth and final attempt to sway the U.S. election, found a way to hack into these particular voting machines and play with the margins in Trump's favor.
To be clear, there is no proof—correlation and causation live in separate houses. The most obvious explanation for Trump’s win is that he outspent his opponent two-to-one in paid advertising, and she never even campaigned in a state so ravaged by jobs sent overseas that people there were very receptive to Trump's promises to bring them back.
However, there is enough suspicion about these results that the Clinton campaign has made the surprising move to join Green Party candidate Jill Stein in demanding that the vote tallies be reviewed and recounted.
It is highly unlikely that the recount will uncover any mischief by the Russians or anyone else, but nothing about this election has been likely, so why stop now?
Paul Noth's cartoon just might prove to be more prescient than anyone could have ever imagined.
Jud Lounsbury is a political reporter based in Madison, Wisconsin, and a regular contributor to The Progressive.