The Sundown Town Vote in Wisconsin: Race-ing the Trump Victory

Roundup
tags: election 2016, Wisconsin, Trump



David Roediger  is the Foundation Professor of American Studies at University of Kansas where he teaches and writes on race and class in the United States. He is the author of Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All. Kathryn Robinson is a PhD student in American Studies at the University of Kansas.  She received her BA with honors in History from Florida State University, and her past research focused on women in the East St. Louis Race Riot.  Her interests include Black intellectual history, civil rights and liberties, racial violence, Progressive-Era politics, labor history and Midwest history.

Early in the evening during which Donald Trump’s election as president unfolded, I talked to a union activist friend in Wisconsin about something unrelated. In signing off, he said he expected to stay up late seeing if the Democrats regained a Senate seat in the state, Hillary Clinton’s victory being assured. A few hours later, it became clear that Donald Trump had instead carried Wisconsin by a razor-thin margin. Who, MSNBCers wondered, were these hidden Trump voters that delivered in Wisconsin one of the three Rust Belt victories paving Trump’s road to the White House?

Coming myself from a “sundown town”—that is, one which for most of the twentieth century remained whites-only, in part by disallowing even visits by African Americans after nightfall—I had read the work of the sociologist James Loewen on such places with great care. In the massive volume, Sundown Towns, and on the website accompanying and updating it, Loewen paid special attention to Wisconsin. Partly this was because, proportionately, so many of its towns fit into the sundown category and partly because their histories were so typical. Many had an early Black presence that was removed over time or in a hot moment. Some featured billboards warning of their policies. They included small towns, but also growing industrial ones, whose good, sometimes union, jobs became the property of whites.

Did sundown towns elect Trump in Wisconsin? My research assistant, Kathryn Robinson, and I tried to find out. Since it is much easier to get county-level election returns than municipal ones, we concentrated on “sundown counties,” those having a county seat that could be established as a sundown town or likely sundown town in Loewen’s mapping. An incredible 58 of the state’s 72 counties fit into such a category. Of the 58 sundown counties 31 are 1% or less African American (and only eight more than 2%), suggesting that the proxy of the county seat works in identifying sundown areas at the county level.The simple answer on Trump and sundown towns in Wisconsin is: “Clearly they elected him.” Sundown counties gave Trump almost 935,000 votes to Clinton’s just over 678,000.

His margin in the sundown areas exceeded 256,000 votes. That Clinton won the fifteen non-sundown counties by almost 230,000 votes could not make up for Trump’s 58% to 42% margin in the sundown ones. Just short of two/thirds of all Trump voters in Wisconsin came from sundown counties. Only nine sundown counties chose Clinton with 49 for Trump.

If anything, these hard facts understate sundown support for Trump’s candidacy. Three relatively large counties that went for the Democratic candidate by a margin of about 18,000 votes are perhaps the most questionably sundown counties in the state. Two of the three are counties hosting significant state universities (Eau Claire and La Crosse Counties), and the third (Rock County) is a long-time, though now lapsed, place of auto production with considerable United Automobile Workers (UAW) union strength. Each has a significant nonwhite population, and Rock County is the lone example of a county with a sundown seat of government but also a Black population of more than 5%. If totals from these questionable sundown counties are removed, Trump’s margin in sundown counties verges on 60% to 40%. ...





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