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.
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.
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.