I want to conclude my roaming series of articles on presidential battleground states by focusing on Wisconsin and Michigan. Both have not backed a Republican for president since 1988. Both have similar demographic and geographic profiles. In 2008 Barack Obama won both states by double-digits. But in 2010 these two states turned as the rest of the nation did and handed a new crop of GOP officials the reigns of power. The Romney campaign has vowed to contest both heavily.
Wisconsin has a heavily suburban GOP electorate, liberal urban vote and a large swath of populist, white, swing voters in the rural areas of the state. Michigan also has a heavily GOP suburban electorate and multiple pockets of populist, blue-collar swing voters. But Michigan also has far more African-Americans than Wisconsin and a more conservative rural vote.
In 2004 this dynamic was on full display in Michigan. Bush carried every rural county in the state by significant margins. However those margins were unable to overcome the Democratic strength that came from Wayne County, where Detroit is located. Kerry only was able to win one suburb outside of Detroit, Oakland County.
In 2004 Wisconsin was one of the most hotly contested states in the country. John Kerry ended up winning the extremely polarized race by a mere .38%, a difference of slightly over 11,o00 votes. But if one looks at the maps between Michigan and Wisconsin it becomes very clear Kerry won far more counties in Wisconsin than Missouri. Yet he easily won Michigan and barely won Wisconsin. This occurred because the Wisconsin suburban electorate is more conservative than even Michigan’s (urban vote outweighs Michigan’s suburban and rural conservative vote) but Wisconsin’s rural vote is more moderate than Michigan’s. In truth, Kerry won Wisconsin in 2004 on the strength of carrying small rural counties such as Price, Portage and Adams Counties.
Fast forward to 2008 however and the maps of each state look dramatically different. In Wisconsin in 2008 Barack Obama won by 14 points. But what is stunning about the victory is he did so by carry virtually EVERY rural county in the state. Outside of the heavily suburban GOP counties of SE Wisconsin McCain won a mere five counties. In Michigan Obama won by a staggering 17 points. He did not win as many counties in Michigan as Wisconsin but ran up big margins in Detroit and won its surrounding conservative suburbs. Meanwhile the rural vote in 2008 in MI was depressed below 2004 levels, just as Ohio’s was.
But in 2010 the results of 2008 were seemingly washed away. In Michigan the GOP took the Governor’s mansion, all other statewide executive offices, both chambers of the Legislature and two new Congressional seats. In Wisconsin the GOP won a Senate seat, the Governor’s mansion, all other statewide executive offices, both chambers of the legislature and two Congressional seats.
Looking at the county maps for Michigan and Wisconsin, whether it be for Governor or Senate in each state it becomes clear that Democratic inroads into rural counties disappeared. In Michigan outside of Wayne County, GOP gubernatorial candidate Rick Snyder lost a mere two counties. In Wisconsin GOP nominee Scott Walker, outside of Madison and Milwaukee, won all but eleven counties. In the Senate race that Ron Johnson won by five points in W his victory closely resembles Walker’s, though he lost a few more counties.
Exit polls are also illuminating. In 2008 Barack Obama won the urban and suburban vote in Michigan easily. Ditto for Wisconsin. But whereas McCain narrowly won the rural vote in Michigan, Obama won the rural vote in Wisconsin by a commanding nine points. No wonder he crushed McCain in virtually every county in the state.
Fast forward to 2010 again though and those results switch. In the Senate race in Wisconsin exit polls show Johnson won men and Feingold narrowly women. But the suburban and rural vote is switched around from 2008. Rural voters backed Johnson 57%-42% and suburban voters 56%-43%. Rural voters and suburban voters also made up a larger slice of the electorate than in 2008. In the Governor’s race Walker ran away with the male vote but narrowly lost women. Just like Johnson did well among suburban voters and even better than Johnson among rural voters.
In the Michigan Gubernatorial race there were no exit polls. But Snyder’s 17 point win speaks for itself about how well he did among rural and suburban voters.
So what do these results say about 2012? Likely that the election in each state will be close and that Democrats do not have a lock on either state, despite their recent presidential voting history.
It is important to note that Wisconsin is in an extremely unique position. The state has been wracked by three sequences of elections since 2010. This was brought on by unions and the left revolting against the CBA reform bill the GOP controlled legislature and Governor passed. In each election the GOP came out on top. In the state Supreme Court election in the Spring of 2011 the conservative incumbent won. In the late summer of 2011 the GOP successfully defended their narrow three seat majority in the Senate. They lost two of the six seats unions had targeted in recall elections. Lastly, in the recently completed Gubernatorial election held on June 5th Walker easily won reelection. Democrats also targeted four GOP senators and won one seat giving them control of the chamber.
Walker has proven he has a unique appeal to Wisconsin voters that cannot be underestimated. This bodes well for Romney as he can walk into the state with Walker’s blessing and convert Walker’s statewide infrastructure for his own use. Still, recent polls have shown Obama ahead in the state, though exit polls of the recall election were way off and the main pollsters are still using Registered Voter samples. In Michigan the president has varied lead in surveys. But again all the samples the president leads in are among Registered voters.
For Romney in both Michigan and Wisconsin he needs his suburban GOP base to turn out. But unlike in other states he also needs to court moderate, rural independent white voters. Obama has to keep his fragile coalition of urban/suburban/moderate rural supporters together to give him both states. If 2010 is any indication that is a tough sell.
But the shifting electorates from 2008 to 2010 indicate that whoever turns out may be more important than the issues both candidates hit on. This makes Walker’s appeal to suburban conservatives in Wisconsin so crucial. Snyder has the ear of fiscal conservatives in Michigan. Still, Obama has strong support in each state. Especially from the UAW and other unions, though humbled in WI, will spend heavily and move heaven and earth to see Obama reelected.
Obama has a slight edge in each state. But that edge is not much. And it could become a deficit in the blink of an eye.