Decision 2012 (June 7 edition) – a “Wisconsin warning” for President Obama ?

This past Tuesday, six states held their primary elections, and Wisconsin held recall elections for its governor, lieutenant governor, and several state senators. The results from Wisconsin and California (especially Wisconsin) have provided some clues as to what will happen in the November elections.


In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker faced a recall election that was a rematch from 2010: he faced the same Democrat who ran against him in that race. The results were essentially the same: in the 2010 race, Walker was victorious by a 52-46% margin, while in the recall election, he defeated the Democrat 53-46%.

Despite the apparent closeness of the margin, this was actually an unambiguous win for Governor Walker. Republicans have rarely won here by substantial margins: the last Republican to carry the state in a Presidential election was Ronald Reagan in 1984. Even then, despite his 59% landslide nationally, he only received 54% of the vote in Wisconsin. And in 2008, President Obama carried Wisconsin by a substantial 56-42% margin.

This race becomes a good case study for the fall elections if you examine the results at the county level. We had noted some time ago that there is an unyielding core of support for Democrats in general and President Obama specifically that consists of minorities, academics, and government employees (capital cities and areas where a critical mass of jobs are dependent on the federal and/or state government). In 2008 (and arguably 2006), this core was augmented by Independents, disgruntled Republicans, and those living in areas hit hard by home foreclosures.

This was a formidable coalition that gave Democrats control of Congress in 2006 and enabled President Obama to win with 53% of the vote in the 2008 Presidential election – more than any Democrat has received since the 1964 Democratic Presidential landslide. However, this coalition of “base voters”, Independents, and disgruntled Republicans began to unravel shortly after President Obama was inaugurated.

Starting with the twin GOP victories in 2009 in New Jersey and Virginia, Republican intensity/turnout has increased, while Democrats have lost ground among Independents and Republicans (especially in the suburbs and rural areas). At the same time, their voter base of government workers, academics/students, and minorities has stuck by the Democratic Party.

This is what happened in the Wisconsin recall election: even with a turnout 16% higher than it was in 2010 (unusual for a special recall election), the coalition of suburbs, smaller towns, and rural areas that elected Scott Walker in 2010 stuck by him, and then some.

Democrats also maintained their solidarity: Wisconsin is one of several states where voters can register and vote on Election Day, and in the Democratic strongholds of Madison (the state capitol and the home of the University of Wisconsin) and Milwaukee, the Democrats succeeded in increasing their turnout by 16%, and their share of the vote in these two counties went from 64 to 66% between 2010 and 2012.

The Milwaukee suburbs (a Republican stronghold) voted 72% for Walker in 2010 and 73% for him in the recall election. Turnout increased here (14%) as well, although this percentage increase was somewhat less than in the Democratic strongholds of Milwaukee and Madison.

The smaller cities and rural areas are more of a swing area In Wisconsin and cast 61% of the vote. It was in this part of the state (which itself contains Democratic leaning dairy farmers and blue collar workers) where Walker and the Republicans really showed their strength: turnout in these 67 (out of 72) counties was 17% higher than the 2010 midterm elections, and Walker’s share of the vote here increased from 55 to 57%.

Blue = urban areas, Red = suburbs, yellow = rest of state












So what does this have to do with the Presidential race? We have seen in election after election since 2009 that the Democratic base of minorities, academics, and government employees is solid, but President Obama can’t be re-elected from this base alone. What really put Obama over the top in 2008 were Independents and disgruntled Republicans. Since that election, those voter blocs largely have moved to the Republicans, and those patterns of support repeated themselves in the recall election in Wisconsin.

Admittedly, some of the Walker vote consisted of voters who did not believe there was a reason to recall the governor, so the fact that someone voted for Walker does not necessarily mean that he/she will vote for Mitt Romney. Still, the notion that Obama’s 56% win made him a cinch to win Wisconsin this fall has been discredited, and in a recently conducted poll by We Ask America (whose last poll on the governor’s race showed Walker with 54% support), Obama only has a 48-43% lead in the state.

The race in Wisconsin is significant in another way as well: part of the clout labor unions have had is the perception that they could mobilize votes against anyone not sufficiently supportive of their agenda. The failed recall in Wisconsin shows this is no longer the case.


California’s primary was interesting because it recently adopted a nonpartisan primary similar to Louisiana and Washington state. In other words, candidates (regardless of party) run in the same primary, and the top two finishers (again, regardless of party) advance to the general election.

California also decided to use an independent redistricting commission to redraw its Congressional and legislative lines, and this made several incumbents’ seats less secure. In fact, seven Congressmen decided not to seek re-election this year.

We looked at the results from the Congressional primaries, and made two assumptions: (1) a candidate who got over 50% of the vote in the primary is a safe bet to win in November, and (2) districts where no one received a majority, but Democratic or Republican candidates received more than 50% of the vote, will vote for that party’s “nominee” in November.

(UPDATED 6/8 PM) With these assumptions, we believe that Democrats are in a good position to win 29 of California’s 53 districts. Republicans are favored in 18 seats, while an additional 6 seats are a tossup (curiously, 3 Democratic and 1 Republican incumbents are in this category). This seems like an unambiguous Democratic win until you realize that California’s U.S. House delegation is 34-19 Democratic. This means that it’s likely Republicans will hold their own and may pick up a seat or two.

Upcoming Events

June 12 – Primaries in Maine, Nevada, North Dakota, South Carolina, and Virginia;

June 12 – Special election in Arizona for Gabby Giffords’ House seat. This swing district could be a GOP pickup;

June 26 – Primaries in Colorado, New York, Oklahoma, and Utah. There are two races we are watching: in New York, 42 year Democratic incumbent Charlie Rangel (who received 51% of the Democratic primary vote in 2010) faces another stiff challenge; while in Utah, 36 year Republican incumbent Senator Orrin Hatch faces a stiff primary fight. He can’t take his re-election for granted: in 2010, Utah Republicans defeated an 18 year incumbent at the party conventions.