What’s going on with Milwaukee’s population [update]

Last month I wrote about how Milwaukee’s population has fallen by around 5,000 since 2015, erasing the city’s tepid growth in the first half of the 2010s. Today, the Census released its latest 1-year estimates from the American Community Survey (ACS). They cover the year from July 1, 2017 to July 1, 2018.

The ACS estimates Milwaukee lost 3,363 individuals from 2017 to 2018, with a margin of error of 85.1 This places the city’s total population at 592,002. An alternative federal program uses administrative records and a survey of housing units to estimate population.2 It places the city’s 2018 population at 592,025.

All Census products now agree that Milwaukee has experienced negative population growth since 2010.

The main driver of Wisconsin’s population loss are shrinking numbers of (non-Hispanic) white residents. ACS estimates suggest that the white population declined by about 4,000 each year since 2015.

For the first time, it appears Milwaukee’s black population is also declining. 2018 was the second year this decade in which the annual Census estimate of black population change since 2010 fell outside the margin of error. In 2018, there were probably around 11,000 fewer black residents living in Milwaukee than in 2010.

Even Milwaukee’s Asian population, which had shown strong signs of growth in the first half of the decade seems to be leveling off. Only the Latino population shows signs of consistent growth. The number of “Hispanic or Latino” residents of any race has grown by about 17,000 over the course of the decade thus far.

  1. 90% confidence interval
  2. The Population Estimates Program (PEP)’s methodology is available here.
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What’s going on with Milwaukee’s population?

The US Census Bureau releases two main annual estimates of population. Both indicate the City of Milwaukee’s population has slipped in recent years. This is a reversal of gains made in the first half of the 2010s.

The most current statistics are from the Population Estimates Program (PEP).1 These numbers are calculated using a combination of administrative records and a recent estimate of housing units. Details are available here. According to this method, Milwaukee’s population grew from 594,500 in the 2010 census to 600,700 in the summer of 2014. By the summer of 2018, this had fallen to 592,000.

The second method used by the Census Bureau is the American Community Survey (ACS), which replaced the long form of the decennial census after 2000. It is randomly distributed to 3.5 million addresses a year, and participation is mandatory.2 The ACS estimates that Milwaukee’s population reached 600,000 in July 2015 before falling to 595,000 in 2017 (the most recent data available).

Irrespective of method, the trend is the same. Milwaukee’s population grew steadily during the first half on the 2010s, but it has declined just as steadily since then.

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Do primary voters strategically vote in the opposition’s primary?

Periodically political enthusiasts express concern that members of a particular political party will conspire to swing the result of the opposing party’s primary election by strategically voting for a candidate who does not express the actual will of that party’s “real” voters. This form of bad-faith strategic voting is sometimes called party raiding.

Party raiding is only feasible in states with open primaries, and fear of it is sometimes used as a argument in favor closed primary systems, which only allow registered partisans to vote in their respective primaries.

Wisconsin is an open primary state. In fact, the state’s Election Commission maintains no records of party affiliation whatsoever. Every party’s primary contests share space on a single ballot. Voters choose their preferred party in the privacy of the voting booth. No state presents fewer barriers to strategic party raiding than Wisconsin.

Nonetheless, there is no evidence that this kind of voting behavior occurs at all in Wisconsin. As I mentioned, registered voters do not have the option to formally affiliate with a party in Wisconsin. We can, however, measure party identification through public opinion data.

I pooled the results of three Marquette Law School Polls preceding the 2016 presidential preference vote and three surveys preceding the 2018 partisan primary. The combined dataset includes 3,515 likely voters. Each respondent was asked if they planned to vote in either the Republican primary, the Democratic primary, or if they didn’t plan to vote at all. We also recorded answers from respondents who insisted they would vote in “both” primaries, even though this would result in a spoiled ballot if carried out.

Respondents were also asked if they “usually think of yourself as a Republican, a Democrat, or an Independent.” Those who answered “independent” were then asked, “Do you think of yourself as closer to the Republican Party or to the Democratic Party?” We consider those who answered affirmatively as “leaning” partisans.

Here is how each partisan group planned to vote in the upcoming primary.

Stated intentions of Wisconsin primary voters by party ID, data from 2016 and 2018
partyID Republican primary Democratic primary Won’t vote Both Don’t know Refused
Rep 89 2 5 1 3 0
Lean Rep 77 4 9 1 7 1
Ind 25 16 17 3 36 4
Lean Dem 7 75 8 1 9 1
Dem 2 89 5 1 3 0

An identical share (2%) of Republicans and Democrats planned to vote in the other party’s primary. Even if this tiny share of people were indeed “party raiding,” they cancelled each other out. But there is no good evidence suggesting they weren’t voting in good faith. In the following general elections the share of self-identified Democrats or Republicans voting for a nominee of the other party exceeded 2%, so it’s quite likely that some share of self-identified Democratic voters genuinely preferred one of the Republican primary candidates and vice versa.

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