Swingers: Wisconsin

I was already a bit familiar with the voting patterns in the cheese belt because I watched the results pour in as Scott Walker attempted to survive a recall vote (and succeeded for the first time in history).  The state became a focal point in a battle over whether it was proper to limit the power and political influence of public sector unions after Walker and a team of Republican state legislators got elected promising to fix the state’s budget woes and did so by requiring state unions to pay more into their health care coverage and stripping them of their right to collectively bargain over anything other than base salary and pay automatic pay increases, as well as requiring public unions to end the practice of extracting mandatory dues and to give people a right to work a trade without belonging to that trade’s public union.  The package became known as a union-busting bill and for months, teachers unions spearheaded a massive protest in Madison that served as a blueprint for the Occupy Wall Street Movement that would later follow.  With the capital under siege and all but two democrats out of the state to prevent the quorum necessary to hold a vote on the bill, Walker and Wisconsin republicans were forced to wait it out.  When they finally passed it, they faced three separate legal challenges, all rejected, followed by recall elections in left-leaning state congressional districts and for Walker and his lieutenant Governor Kleefisch.  Walker survived the recall vote, but a subsequent state supreme court challenge has temporarily nullified the law while Walker’s legal team appeals to a Federal district court.

Amid all of this drama, there is a hard reality for democrats – Wisconsin – long a safe democrat state (interrupted by popular support for Reagan) – may be trending back to the right since 2008’s wave election.  Republicans survived the recall vote, for the most part, but it is not clear how much momentum Conservatives in the state will enjoy.  It is generally a good sign for a party when a number of its best and brightest minds are coming from a region – on the right, Wisconsin has recently been a breeding ground for some mega-talents that reveal a robust and spirited state-level GOP that is engaged and making gains.  Paul Ryan – lead voice of conservative intellectualism on matters of budgetary policy – comes from a left-leaning swing district that has comfortably supported him by margins no less than 64-31 since his first election.  Rience Preibus – head of the RNC – is a master fundraiser and spin-doctor, and is building a reputation as a leading party strategist as well – he too originates in Wisconsin.  Scott Walker is among the hottest rising stars of of the GOP governors association.  Rebecca Kleefisch will likely follow Walker as governor and is widely considered a leader among conservative women of the Midwest despite her relative youth.

Adding to the curiosity about whether Wisconsin might be playable for Romney in 2012, Romney selected native son Ryan as his running mate and almost immediately, polling drastically improved – now the consensus seems to be that Romney is trailing in Wisconsin by at most 2-3 points and that he’s running in the state almost uncontested as Obama is forced to save his resources to defend a crumbling firewall in Ohio, Virginia and Florida.  While polling in Wisconsin continues to improve in the final month of campaign season, Obama’s firewall is down to one.  VA and FL polls have trended strongly to the right as Romney has utterly buried Obama in spending on television ads and ramped up his ground game to match the formidable efforts of the incumbent in the White House.  But let’s familiarize ourselves with this crucial battleground and get the lay of the land.

Populous Regions:

  1. Eau Claire (~2% of vote)
  2. La Crosse (~2% of vote)
  3. Madison (~9-9.5% of vote and rapidly increasing)
  4. Green Bay (~4% of vote)
  5. Milwaukee (~16% and declining rapidly)
  6. Kenosha (~2.5% of vote and increasing)
  7. Fon De Luc (~1.5-2% of vote)
Wisconsin counties by slant grouping: averaged from 2000 to 2008
The keystone county this time is Iron County – on the far outskirts of the Wisconsin suburbs of Duluth, MN – it’s a quiet little county without a ton of votes to contribute, but it does a good job of predicting the behavior of both the rural conservative counties in the North of the state and the suburban and urban liberal counties in the South and West.  I also recommend watching the Green Bay vote tally and adding 2.5 to 3 points to the democrat vote to get a good feel for the state’s likely final outcome…Green Bay (Brown County) has almost perfectly predicted the precise state swing from cycle to cycle – it just votes a few points right of the mean for the state.
Also, notice a pattern yet in all of these states?  Well there are two things that are always true:
  • Urban areas tilt left of the state in general – very few cities defy this paradigm, and in fact, I found an obvious (and robust with 99.5%+ confidence) linear correlation between the natural log of population density and slant nationwide.
  • Urban backlash is the only thing that seems to break this nearly perfect correlation – even moderately populated suburbs near a very liberal city will tend to vote right of center and stay right of center even in elections like 2008, where the whole electorate is shifting.  I believe what’s going on here is that inner ring suburbs surrounding a major liberal city have a birds eye view of exactly what liberal policies get you in terms in stagnation, poverty, crime and education, not to mention taxation and job prospects…and they vote accordingly (for the guys who will fight against urban political corruption).  Obama would see this pattern and assume that the wealthy suburban elites support Republicans and deny funding to the city selfishly, but a look at Milwaukee suggests that the inner ring conservative bloc is actually populated with primarily middle class earners and not the rich.  So bear that in mind if you hear that argument.

Wisconsin counties by slant grouping: 2008 election
Note that the inner ring suburbs of Milwaukee held the line and voted for McCain in droves…the entire rest of the state moved left a good solid 8 points, shifting entire regions into the top liberal bracket and the vast open spaces of swing country into democrat leaners.  Yep…McCain took a brutal beating in Wisconsin.
You can see the shift even more clearly when you look at the state’s three-cycle slant grouped county statistics (once again 2000, 2004, 2008 election cycles in that order, first percent of state vote, then slant)
1 12.48% 12.30% 12.50% 32.35% 32.03% 37.09%
2 13.38% 13.76% 13.85% 42.36% 41.29% 48.78%
3 30.38% 30.46% 30.12% 47.52% 46.99% 54.82%
4 13.50% 13.60% 13.61% 53.71% 53.89% 61.17%
5 30.26% 29.87% 29.93% 62.01% 63.36% 69.61%
Liberals and learners shifted by a full 7-8 points, while conservatives shifted less and voted a little more, trying to keep it close.  I saw something similar in Nevada and New Mexico, and definitely spotted it in Minnesota near Minneapolis where regional tax-base sharing is clobbering conservative suburbs with huge tax increases.
But here are the facts, regarding the state since 2008:
In 2010, even the SW part of the state managed to send republicans to the state legislature (albeit only one or two).  Walker received a vote share that looked more like Bush (2004) – here, let’s just look at the map from that recall election (I won’t use slant grouping colors here…I’ll show you the image from an election data website I’ve been using for these analyses (you can find it Deep Election Data):
Users, please note that the colors have been flipped from traditional formats and the GOP is in blue (Dems in red).  What a change from 2008!  Walker annihilated vast regions that voted 60% of more for Obama in 2008, converting them to winners for his campaign.  The pattern is roughly the same, but shifted like 10 points right of the three-cycle averages.
And then he did it again.  In fact, his margin of victory was about 1.5 points bigger the second time around in his recall election.  I would call that noteworthy and a reason for optimism despite the leftward surge of an already left-leaning state in 2008.  The addition of Ryan to Romney’s ticket and the endorsement and campaign organization of Walker that is now being used by Romney’s campaign can’t hurt.

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