Rural-urban divide in Winnebago County

Sophia Voight, Asst. News Editor

On an election map of Winnebago County, Oshkosh typically stands out like a blue island in a sea of red.

Like many urban areas in the country, the city of Oshkosh tends to lean heavily democratic in presidential and local elections, while the surrounding rural areas remain securely republican.

“Across the state, the big divide is between the metropolitan areas and small towns in rural Wisconsin,” UW Oshkosh political science professor James Simmons said.

Oshkosh’s classification as an urban area with a university and a white-collar dominated workforce gives it a democratic edge against the Republican stronghold in the more rural areas of the county.

In this year’s general election, President Donald Trump and Republicans performed well in rural small towns, especially among white men, Simmons said.

Biden and Democrats, on the other hand, carried the city of Oshkosh fairly easily.

Winnebago County voting patterns in the 2016 presidential election show the rural-urban divide between Oshkosh and the rest of the county (Courtesy of James Simmons)

Oshkosh residents leaned democratic in every red/blue race on their ballot, according to official election results.
But if you zoom out to the county, Republicans were able to win by substantial margins in many voting districts, often winning by over 40% of the total vote, according to official election results.

This deep rural red helped Republicans score wins in every state and local election on this year’s ballot and offsetting the high democratic vote in urban areas like Oshkosh and Neenah.

Due to the rural, urban divide between Oshkosh and Winnebago County, Republicans have been able to maintain a stronghold in every county-wide elections.

Rural parts of the county are so overwhelmingly Republican and make up a substantial amount of the county vote that Democrats usually won’t even run candidates in county elections because they know they won’t win, Simmons said.
The Winnebago County clerk, treasurer and district attorney all ran unopposed this election, and all were Republicans.

Rural areas are primarily composed of white people and blue-collar workers who tend to vote Republican, but in the city of Oshkosh, Democrats have the advantage due to ties to the university and the more white-collar professionals in the city.

Simmons said the city hasn’t always been this way though. Oshkosh used to be far more Republican but has slowly become deep blue over the past few decades.

Oshkosh has lost a lot of its manufacturing employers which tended to attract Republican voters and the industries that have stayed unionized whose members tend to vote democratic, according to Simmons.

Simmons said with the loss of manufacturing industries that once heavily employed large portions of Oshkosh residents, the city has lost much of its republican base.

“It has become a postindustrial city and become more white-collar, more professional,” he said.

Simmons said the increase of racial minorities in Oshkosh has also contributed to the shift in our voting patterns.

While Winnebago County remains predominantly white giving them a Republican edge, Oshkosh’s minority populations tend to be more favorable to Democratic candidates.

“[Oshkosh] is still overwhelmingly white but we’re becoming somewhat more diverse and that’s more favorable to the Democrats,” he said.

Simmons said UW Oshkosh plays a large role in the way Oshkosh residents vote as the third-largest employer in the city.

“The university is one of the major employers in the city,” he said. “So, the city is much less manufacturing and more professional.”

White-collar workers often lean blue in national and local elections as Democratic candidates are typically more supportive of higher education, Simmons said.

A number of the Democratic candidates in this election had direct ties to the university. U.S. congressional candidate Jessica King graduated from UWO and state senate candidate Aaron Wojciechowski is a recent political science and economics graduate of UWO.

College students also tend to vote more democratic, Simmons said. Some of the heaviest blue voting districts in the city were the ones surrounding the college campus.

Simmons said Biden won the presidential vote among students by a substantial margin of roughly 58% of the vote while Trump only got 39% of the student vote.

This is opposed to the total city vote where the margins were slightly smaller, allocating 52% of the vote to Biden and 44% to Trump, according to official election results.

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton wasn’t able to score as large of a margin for the Democrats in 2016 among UWO students as Biden was able to do this year.

Clinton won roughly 47% of the student vote while Trump got 41%, according to Simmons.

“One of the most democratic sections of Oshkosh in presidential election years is in the student districts,” Simmons said.