Wisconsin State Senator Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, has held her District 10 seat for the past 16 years, and even survived a 2011 recall. In an area comprised of some counties that have voted Democratic in past presidential elections, The Observatory wanted to know why and how Harsdorf has held her seat so confidently over the past 16 years. We discovered that District 10 has a population high in traits that often are more indicative that the area would lean Republican: rural, white and less educated. Furthermore, the district’s expensive advertising market favors incumbents.
District 10 borders Minnesota and includes parts of Burnett, Dunn, Pierce, Polk and St. Croix counties. Data on the population of these counties show that District 10 voters have characteristics that studies show make them likely to lean Republican.
The average population across these counties that make up District 10 is around 46,300, according to a 2015 estimate based on the 2010 U.S. Census. The average population per square mile (as of 2010) among these counties is 61 people, compared to 105 people across all of Wisconsin, indicating that District 10 is relatively rural.
UW-Madison professor and author of the new book “The Politics of Resentment” Katherine Cramer has studied Wisconsin voters. Her book examines how rural voters across the state have growing resentment toward cities, government and elites. “There is now deep resentment in Wisconsin, driven by economics, and propelled into politics by savvy politicians. And the resentment is hitting this presidential election with full force,” Cramer said in a column for USA Today. This resentment motivates rural voters to support Republicans like Donald Trump, she said. Other analyses also show that rural areas tend to lean more Republican. Since District 10 is so rural, the politics of resentment and general trend of rural areas to lean Republican could be one indication of why Harsdorf and the Republican party have such a strong hold on District 10.
District 10’s majority white population is also another factor that suggests it would lean Republican. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that whites are more likely to identify as Republican rather than Democrat. The counties that make up District 10 have a much higher white population than the rest of Wisconsin, with an average of 95 percent of the population identifying as white compared to 88 percent across all of Wisconsin. Less than 1 percent of the population of these counties identifies as black or African American, on average, and 2 percent identify as Hispanic or Latin American, according to the Census data. In comparison, 7 percent of the entire Wisconsin population identifies as black, and 7 percent identify as Hispanic. The disproportionately high white population indicates that District 10 would lean Republican.
The Pew survey also found that Democrats hold a 12-point lead among those with at least a college degree. On average, only 24 percent of District 10 county residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 27 percent across all of Wisconsin. Since District 10 voters have fewer college degrees on average, these numbers also indicate that the district might favor Republicans by a small margin.
While all these characteristics indicate that these counties would be likely to vote Republican, outcomes of past presidential elections prove otherwise. In 2008, the District 10 counties voted for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama by a margin of around 3,500 votes. However, in this same year,Harsdorf won the District 10 seat yet again by a margin of almost 13,000 votes. So what explains this discrepancy?
Harsdorf has raised significantly more money in all of her races. In almost every race since 2000, she has close to doubled her opponent’s fundraising. In any district, campaign finances play an important role in paying for advertising to get the candidate’s name and issues out to the public. However, money is even more important in District 10 because the cost of advertising is so expensive.
Because District 10 borders Minnesota, it shares a television market with the Twin Cities.
The media buying firm Wholesale Airtime Auction estimates that it costs almost $30,000 to run a 30-second ad on three to four TV and radio stations, seven days per week for a month in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market. In contrast, it costs only about $17,000 to advertise in Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s biggest market. Additionally, the Minneapolis-St. Paul market, ranked by Nielsen as the 15th largest market, reaches over 1.7 million viewers. The District 10 counties have a total population of just over 230,000, so the market where District 10 candidates must advertise includes a huge excess population of viewers.
Since the candidates in this rural district face exceptionally high costs for advertising, incumbents and candidates with more funds have an even greater advantage. Incumbents already have name recognition, so they need not spend as much money on advertising as their challengers. Candidates with greater funds also have more income to dispense to advertising campaigns. In District 10, the Republican candidate Harsdorf has the incumbent and fundraising advantage. Together with District 10’s rural, white and less eduated population that is likely to lean Republican according to previous studies, the high cost of advertising has helped Harsdorf maintain her state Senate seat for over 16 years.
Balletopedia. Sheila Harsdorf. Retreived from https://ballotpedia.org/Sheila_Harsdorf.
Cramer, Kathy. 4 April 2016. USA Today. Wisconsin’s new politics of resentment. Retreived from http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2016/04/04/wisconsin-primary-trump-sanders-resentment-column/82619794/.
U.S. Census Bureau. Quick Facts: Burnett County, Dunn County, Pierce County, Polk County, St. Croix County. Retreived from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/55033,55093,55109,55095,55013,55.
Wisconsin Elections Commission. Fall general election results: Presidential reports by county.
2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016.
Wisconsin Elections Commission. Fall general election results: State Senate reports by county. 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016.
Wisconsin State Legislature. Wisconsin legislative districts. Retreived from http://maps.legis.wisconsin.gov/#.