Against the Grain

Scott Walker Is Overstating His Blue-State Appeal

If Democratic turnout in Wisconsin’s three biggest counties had been at presidential-election-year levels, Walker would have struggled to win reelection as governor.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker announces that he will seek the Republican nomination for president July 13, 2015 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. 
National Journal
July 13, 2015, 2:45 p.m.

Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er kicked off his cam­paign Monday by ar­guing he’s one of the only Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates who has both gov­erned con­ser­vat­ively and won elec­tions in a Demo­crat­ic-friendly state. “In the Re­pub­lic­an field, there are some who are good fight­ers. They haven’t won those battles. There are oth­ers who have won elec­tions, but haven’t con­sist­ently taken on the big fights. We showed you can do both,” Walk­er said in his kick­off video, re­mind­ing sup­port­ers he won three straight elec­tions in a “blue state.”

Walk­er’s polit­ic­al ar­gu­ment is ac­cur­ate at face value, but it comes with a ma­jor caveat: All three of his suc­cess­ful cam­paigns took place sep­ar­ate from the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, when turnout among many of the Demo­crat­ic Party’s core con­stitu­en­cies dropped off pre­cip­it­ously. Wis­con­sin has one of the most po­lar­ized elect­or­ates in the coun­try, and there’s a sig­ni­fic­antly lower midterm turnout in the state’s most-lib­er­al counties (most dra­mat­ic­ally, in Mil­wau­kee County) com­pared to the state’s con­ser­vat­ive base (Wauke­sha County). The more a county sup­por­ted Walk­er, the more likely it was to see strong turnout in an off-year elec­tion.

Walk­er’s suc­cess had as much to do with the polit­ic­al cal­en­dar and the state’s po­lar­ized elect­or­ate as it did with cros­sov­er ap­peal. He won only 6 per­cent of Demo­crat­ic voters in his 2014 reelec­tion. Many Afric­an-Amer­ic­an voters simply stayed home dur­ing Walk­er’s gubernat­ori­al cam­paigns, while a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of col­lege stu­dents sat out the con­ten­tious June 2012 re­call elec­tion — which took place after cam­puses’ spring semester con­cluded. That’s not likely to re­peat it­self if he’s the GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee.

(RE­LATED: Scott Walk­er, the Pres­id­en­tial Can­did­ate Next Door)

To wit: Ac­cord­ing to exit polling, young adults un­der the age of 30 made up 20 per­cent of the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elect­or­ate, but that num­ber dropped to 16 per­cent dur­ing the re­call elec­tion. White voters made up 91 per­cent of the re­call vote, but only 86 per­cent in the last pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. The Afric­an-Amer­ic­an per­cent­age of the elect­or­ate was nearly twice as high in Novem­ber 2012 (7 per­cent) as it was two years pri­or in 2010 (4 per­cent). In the Demo­crat­ic bas­tion of Mil­wau­kee County, turnout for the 2014 midterm elec­tion was only 74 per­cent of the vote total for the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. In deeply con­ser­vat­ive Wauke­sha County, that num­ber was much high­er: 83 per­cent.

In­deed, if voters from both parties had turned out at the same rates as in pres­id­en­tial elec­tions in just the state’s three largest counties (Wauke­sha, Dane, and Mil­wau­kee), the res­ult­ing surge in Demo­crat­ic turnout would nearly wipe out Walk­er’s en­tire mar­gin of vic­tory in the state. Even more fas­cin­at­ing: Nearly all of the drop-off in non-pres­id­en­tial-year turnout in deeply-con­ser­vat­ive Wauke­sha County came from Demo­crats. (Walk­er held nearly all — 95 per­cent — of Mitt Rom­ney’s Wauke­sha County vote total in the 2012 re­call elec­tion. Demo­crat Tom Bar­rett man­aged to re­tain only 74 per­cent of Pres­id­ent Obama’s 2012 sup­port.)

In fact, Walk­er’s play-to-the-base strategy in win­ning three con­sec­ut­ive elec­tions car­ries a lot of sim­il­ar­it­ies to Pres­id­ent Obama’s ap­proach to polit­ics. In Novem­ber 2014, Walk­er won reelec­tion with over­whelm­ing sup­port from male voters (60 per­cent against Demo­crat Mary Burke), white voters (56 per­cent), and con­ser­vat­ives (87 per­cent). Obama trans­lated over­whelm­ing sup­port and his­tor­ic turnout among col­lege stu­dents, single wo­men, and non­white voters to win two straight cam­paigns.

(RE­LATED: Scott Walk­er: Con­ser­vat­ive Now, Mod­er­ate Later?)

In a more ho­mo­gen­eous state like Wis­con­sin, ap­peal­ing to non­white voters isn’t ne­ces­sary for Re­pub­lic­ans to win elec­tions. But to win a hotly-con­tested pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, it’s a near-re­quire­ment for the GOP’s 2016 nom­in­ee to at least make some in­roads. Walk­er may have that cros­sov­er abil­ity, but he hasn’t proved it yet.

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