WASHINGTON – For months, optimists in the Democratic camp have argued that the wave of anxious – sometimes angry – voters that swept Republicans to victory in 2010 had begun to subside, just in time for President Barack Obama’s run for re-election.
Wisconsin’s recall election put a torch to that idea.
In almost all respects, the voters who opted to keep Republican Gov. Scott Walker in office resembled those of 2010. The one significant difference was that Tuesday’s turnout was larger.
Democrats continue to face problems with two critical voting groups, as Tuesday’s voting underscored, said Paul Maslin, a longtime Democratic strategist based in Wisconsin.
“The under-30 vote has really cratered. ‘Yes we can’ has become ‘Maybe we can’t’ – and they’re getting hit with a bad job market and failed expectations,” Maslin said. And among white, working-class voters, who deserted the Democrats in droves in 2010, the party continues to struggle. “Obama has to do much better” among those voters than Democrats did Tuesday night in order to win re-election, he said – an opinion echoed by other Democratic advisers.
Exit polls of Tuesday’s voters back up those contentions. When Obama carried Wisconsin in 2008, people younger than 30 accounted for more than 1 in 5 voters; Obama carried almost two-thirds of their votes. Tuesday night, fewer than 1 in 6 Wisconsin voters were younger than 30 and the Democratic candidate, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, won just over half of them.
In 2008, Obama won 54 percent of white voters in Wisconsin, according to the exit polls. Tuesday night, Barrett won only 43 percent of them. (Early versions of the exit poll underestimated the size of Walker’s vote, but the final exit poll numbers have been weighted to match the actual turnout.)
The results may not yet mean that Obama is in trouble in Wisconsin – a state that Democrats have won in presidential elections since 1988.
Indeed, the exit polls showed that Tuesday’s voters would have gone for Obama by a seven-point margin. But that’s half the margin by which Obama carried the state in 2008, and the decline bodes poorly for other industrial-belt states that started out closer, particularly the region’s biggest prize, Ohio.
Obama benefits from a significant number of ticket-splitting voters in the state, pollster Charles Franklin of Marquette University Law School noted. “Wisconsin has quite a few swing voters whose heads do not explode from supporting Walker and Obama,” he said.
In the aftermath of the voting, Republican strategists tried to avoid sounding overconfident. Democrats, meanwhile, talked up reasons why Wisconsin’s results were peculiar to the state. They focused in particular on the financial advantage – more than 2-to-1 – that Walker and his backers had over Barrett and his allies.
Wisconsin “does not today lean Republican, but it is in play,” Ed Gillespie, a senior strategist for the Mitt Romney campaign, told reporters at a breakfast hosted by Bloomberg News. In the November election, “of course we’re going to compete there.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney characterized the race as essentially a do-over of the 2010 contest between Walker and Barrett. Last time, Walker won by five points. This time, he won by seven, 53 percent to 46 percent, but only after “he outspent his challenger” by taking advantage of “an enormous amount of outside corporate money and huge donations,” Carney told reporters. “I certainly wouldn’t read much into yesterday’s result beyond its effect on who’s occupying the governor’s seat in Wisconsin,” he said.
Despite the Democrats’ focus on the Republican money advantage, there was little evidence of its having been decisive. Well over 90 percent of voters in the exit poll said they had made up their minds before the campaign even began. That suggests that the barrage of television advertisements over the past month changed few minds.
Nor did Democrats lack resources to get out their vote. Indeed, in the party’s two strongholds, Milwaukee and Dane County (Madison), Barrett improved on his 2010 margin by roughly 40,000 votes. But that gain was washed away by Walker’s improved margins in smaller metropolitan areas , which Obama carried in 2008. Democrats also won a state Senate recall, allowing them to recapture a majority in the chamber.
The recall fight began more than a year ago after Walker pushed a bill through the Wisconsin Legislature that severely curtailed collective bargaining rights for teachers and most other state workers. Ever since, the state has been locked in a bitter and polarizing political battle. Many Wisconsin residents have talked of the stress of that divisiveness, but it clearly energized voters on both sides. Voter turnout of roughly 2.5 million was far above normal for an election for governor although still far short of the almost 3 million votes cast in the 2008 presidential election.
The polarization of voters around the issue of the role of unions in the public sector appeared to have worked to the advantage of Republicans. In 2008, Obama won a majority both among Wisconsinites whose households included a union member and those who did not. In Tuesday’s election, Walker lost union households, but more than made up for that with a huge 61 percent to 39 percent majority among non-union households.