The Battle for Wisconsin

Craig Gilbert, the authority on Wisconsin politics, provides a statewide voting breakdown of the Wisconsin recall results and identifies the areas likely to decide the 2012 Presidential race for the Badger State:

In geographic terms, the big story of the state’s June 5 election was Walker’s striking performance outside the Milwaukee and Madison media markets. In demographic terms, it was Walker’s rural landslide. Is what happened “out-state” a warning sign for Democrats — and President Obama — in November?

No matter how huge their margins in Milwaukee and Dane counties, Democrats can’t win statewide if their geographic base is as narrow as it was June 5, when Tom Barrett won only 12 of 72 counties and only six outside the state’s southern tier. Much of the swing vote in Wisconsin can be found outside the Madison and Milwaukee TV markets, which contain the state’s most partisan Democratic counties (Milwaukee, Dane) and most partisan Republican counties (Waukesha, Washington, Ozaukee).

  • Wausau TV market contains 11 counties in north central Wisconsin. Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle won the Wausau market by 11 points in 2006. Democrat Barack Obama won it by 12 in 2008. Then Republican Walker won it by 12 points in 2010 and by 18 points in 2012.
  • Green Bay market. Obama carried it by seven points in 2008 and Walker carried it by 23 in 2012.
  • La Crosse-Eau Claire market. Obama carried it by 19 points in 2008 and Walker carried it by nine points in 2012.

Many of the same out-state counties Obama carried by single or double digits in 2008, Walker ran away with in 2012. (To take just one example, Obama won Kewaunee County by 11 points in ’08; Walker won it by 29 on June 5).

The fact that Walker won them by such unusual margins is clearly an encouraging sign for Republicans in November. By the same token, Walker’s performance in some areas of outstate Wisconsin was so exceptional it may be hard for other Republicans to duplicate.

The changing geographic split in Wisconsin:

Wisconsin has long had an East-West partisan divide, with Republicans stronger in the East (excluding Milwaukee) and Democrats stronger in the West. But this race featured a North-South divide as well, thanks in part to what happened with rural voters.

The rural vote is generally up for grabs in big Wisconsin elections. It went Republican by modest margins in the ultra-close 2000 and 2004 presidential races. It went Democratic for governor in 2006 and president in 2008, according to exit polls. But in the 2010 governor’s race, Walker won rural voters by 20 points. And on June 5, he won them by almost 30 points (64% to 36% in the exit polls), the biggest margin in any race for governor or president in Wisconsin since the 1990s (left).

Rural voters typically make up between a quarter and a third of the state’s electorate. So losing a group that large by that much is a pretty sure formula for defeat. And it’s one reason for the striking regional pattern of the June 5 election results. Walker’s share of the vote went down slightly from 2010 to 2012 in the big Milwaukee and Madison TV markets in southern Wisconsin. It also shrank in the state’s lightly populated and traditionally Democratic northwestern tip. But it increased throughout most of central and northern Wisconsin.

Walker gained ground in western Wisconsin, including areas that typically vote Democratic. But his biggest gains were in the Green Bay and Wausau television markets that cover a huge swath (27 counties) of northern Wisconsin. In the Wausau market, Walker’s winning margin grew from 12 points in 2010 to 18 points in 2012.

In the much more populous Green Bay market, his margin grew from 16 points in 2010 to 23 points in 2012 – almost unheard of in a competitive statewide race. Those gains came not just from rural voters, of course, but suburban voters in the Fox Valley as well. Walker carried Brown County by 20 points.

Local political strategists offer theories why Walker won by such unusual margins “outstate”:

  • The Milwaukee factor. Walker pummeled Barrett on TV over crime, taxes and unemployment in the city of Milwaukee. In an interview last week, Walker said he thought Barrett’s identity as mayor of Milwaukee, combined with Milwaukee’s problems, was a significant factor in much of the state. In 2010, both candidates for governor were known as Milwaukee politicians, since Walker was county executive. But in 2012, it was the governor of Wisconsin running against the mayor of Milwaukee, a contrast Walker underlined in this race.
  • The turmoil factor. Some Republicans argue that the opposition to Walker, so visible in the Madison protests, took on such a turbulent character that it made Democrats look shrill and militant to many out-state voters, or at the very least made the anti-Walker movement look like a “Madison” thing to some people in other parts of the state.
  • Campaign factors. The GOP turnout operation may have had a broader geographic reach in the end. Democrats turned out their base, but their turnout gains were concentrated in fewer places. Of the increase in Barrett’s vote between 2010 and 2012, close to half (42%) came from Milwaukee and Dane counties. Walker turned out his own base in the southeastern Wisconsin suburbs, but his turnout gains were more spread out across the state.
  • Guns. The National Rifle Association was one of many groups playing in the recall fight, and did ads, heavy mailings and phone calls attacking Barrett’s record on guns and touting Walker’s role in passing a concealed carry law. In interviews last week, NRA officials argued that this was particularly helpful to Walker outstate. The group focused its effort most heavily in the Green Bay, La Crosse-Eau Claire and Wausau markets.
  • Swing voters.  Walker’s performance out-state can also be viewed as a by-product of his strength among swing voters in general. Exit polls showed that almost one-fifth of Walker’s vote came from people who favored Obama for president. Whether you believe these voters were motivated by their support for Walker’s job performance or by their aversion to the recall process or both, they clearly tilted in Walker’s direction June 5.

One Trackback

  1. […] in on Obama’s turf. And remember, the day after Scott Walker’s victory, his vaunted Get Out The Vote machine and its 26 Field Offices flip their signs out front and became Romney Victory Offices: Republicans […]

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