Wisconsin Recall Comes Down to Political Makeup of the Electorate

But with so few undecided voters left, the biggest question mark remaining is the composition of the electorate.
by | June 5, 2012
 

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By Craig Gilbert, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Every election boils down to two things: what voters think, and which voters vote.

Both sides have been furiously trying to change minds before Tuesday’s historic recall election in Wisconsin.

But with so few undecided voters left, the biggest question mark remaining is the composition of the electorate.

Which voters vote?

Here’s a look at that and other keys to the nationally watched rematch between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democrat Tom Barrett:

— Political makeup of the electorate: This may be the single most important factor in determining the winner Tuesday.

Consider the past three Wisconsin elections. Democrats won big in 2006 and 2008. Republicans won big in 2010.

In the first two cases, Democratic voters outnumbered Republican voters by four and six percentage points, according to exit polls. But in the 2010 election, that Democratic edge was down to just one point.

An even more telling fact: The 2010 electorate that swept Republicans into power was the most conservative in Wisconsin in many years, according to exit polls.

Self-described conservatives made up 37 percent of the vote in 2010. Four years earlier, when Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle got re-elected, conservatives made up only 27 percent of the vote.

If the electorate Tuesday is as conservative as it was 19 months ago, that will be very good news for Walker.

What do the 2012 polls have to say on this subject?

Most statewide surveys this year have captured a very conservative mix of voters — even more conservative than the 2010 electorate in Wisconsin.

Either those polls are true barometers of conservative intensity and are accurately predicting the rightward tilt of the vote Tuesday — or they’re oversampling conservatives and overstating Walker’s lead.

— The size of the recall vote: Tuesday’s turnout is generally expected to be higher than the 2010 race for governor (50 percent of voting-age adults) but lower than the 2008 presidential election (69 percent).

Who benefits from higher turnout? There’s no pat answer to that question. There were 2,171,331 votes cast in the 2010 election. If turnout is, say, 200,000 votes higher than that, that could reflect a Republican turnout surge, a Democratic turnout surge, or both.

Turnout is extremely unlikely Tuesday to match the 2008 presidential race, when almost 3 million votes were cast in Wisconsin.

But if turnout is in the very bullish range predicted by state election officials — 2.6 million to 2.8 million — that could be good news for Democrats. That’s because the Democratic coalition includes voting groups — minorities, lower-income voters, young voters — that typically turn out at lower rates. If turnout really does top 2.5 million, that probably indicates a robust turnout by more casual Democratic voters.

If on the other hand turnout is at 2010 levels or lower, that’s probably bad news for Democrats. After all, they lost the 2010 election by six points. Even Democrats don’t think they can make up that difference simply by getting the same 2010 voters to change their minds.

— Independents: Republican Walker won independents by 14 points in 2010. The public polls have offered conflicting evidence about the battle for independents. Barrett has to do a lot better with independents than he did last time.

— Base vs. Base: If this election is a turnout war, no two places on the Wisconsin map better embody that struggle than Dane and Waukesha — big, ultra-partisan, high-turnout counties where both sides should come close to maximizing their vote Tuesday.

It’s hard to understate how machine-like these counties have become in piling up spectacular margins for their dominant parties.

In the 2010 midterms, Waukesha County had a turnout of 64 percent of voting-age adults, higher than the presidential turnout in most states in 2008. Waukesha is most definitely Walker Country.

Walker won the county in 2010 by almost 82,000 votes — bigger than George W. Bush’s winning margin in Waukesha in the 2004 presidential race, when overall turnout was far higher.

Dane, meanwhile, displayed its ardor in the labor wars by leading the state in turnout rate in last year’s highly politicized state Supreme Court race. Almost half the voting-age population in Dane went to the polls for a spring judicial election.

Walker should get at least 70 percent of the vote in Waukesha.

Barrett should get at least 70 percent in Dane. More important will be their winning vote margins. Dane has about 30 percent more voting-age adults, so Barrett’s vote margin in Dane should be bigger than Walker’s in Waukesha.

But in 2010 it wasn’t, which was symptomatic of the Democrats’ problems that year.

— Milwaukee: This is a critical turnout challenge and opportunity for Democrats. With a lot of low-income and minority voters, the city of Milwaukee often has a big drop-off in the vote from presidential races to other elections. Democrats can’t afford too big a drop-off Tuesday, which is why Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton will have all campaigned in the city in the closing days of the election.

The 2010 race for governor pitted Milwaukee Mayor Barrett against Milwaukee County Executive Walker. It was no contest in Milwaukee County. Barrett beat Walker in the county 62 percent to 38 percent. Expect a similar blowout this time. But the more important figure will be the size of the vote. Milwaukee County produced about 475,000 votes for president in 2008 and 341,000 votes for governor in 2010. Democrats need to grow that second number on Tuesday.

— Up North: Every region of the state will factor in Tuesday’s vote, including the GOP-leaning Green Bay TV market to the east, which Walker won by 16 points in 2010, and the normally Democratic-leaning La Crosse/Eau Claire market to the west, which Walker won in 2010 by about five points.

But one place to watch is northern Wisconsin. In polling this year by Marquette, that’s the one region where Walker had improved on his 2010 numbers.

— The youth vote: Voters under 30 made up 17 percent of the vote in the 2006 governor’s race and 15 percent in the 2010 race. They voted Democratic both times. Again, the question this time is turnout. This is a June election, not a November election, and colleges are out, making it harder to mobilize students. It’s unclear how much that might depress the youth vote.

— Union households: These voters made up 26 percent of the Wisconsin vote in 2010 and 2008. Barrett won union households 63 percent to 37 percent in 2010. Barrett needs them to turn out in large numbers, and he probably has to win them by even bigger margins.

©2012 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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