Wisconsin has been a hotbed of swing-state, red/blue American politics since the new millennium. In both 2000 and 2004 George Bush came within 10,000 votes of carrying the state. In the same period voters elected a Democratic Governor in 2002 and 2006. In 2008 the state went for Barack Obama by 14 points but in 2010 the state elected a GOP legislature, a new Republican Senator, two new GOP Congressman and a Republican Governor. In the summer of 2012 the state reelected their Governor after a recall fueled by unions and CBA Reform and yet less than six months later voted for Barack Obama by six points.
This is understandable after a piece published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in conjunction with Marquette Law School was released. It showed that Southeastern Wisconsin, Milwaukee and its suburbs, are some of the most partisan and racially polarized places in the country. Beyond the division lies a simple fact, as goes Southeastern Wisconsin so goes the state. Democrats tend to be able to turn out their base more in Presidential elections while Republican supporters in the Milwaukee suburbs make up a greater share of the electorate in non-Presidential elections.
But forgotten or at least not discussed in this analysis is Northern Wisconsin. Northeastern Wisconsin is home to the Green Bay media market and its fairly conservative suburbs. Journey west however and you find a mixed bag of partisan allegiances that defy modern stereotypes. Rural, unionized, and pro-gun, Northwestern Wisconsin can make or break elections when Milwaukee is fought to a draw by both parties. In essence, Northern Wisconsin holds the key to the hotly contested 2014 gubernatorial election and perhaps the 2016 US Presidential and US Senate elections.
Northern Wisconsin has backed the ultimate gubernatorial winner in elections since 1990 dating back to Tommy Thompson. More recently, in 2008 and 2012 the region backed President Obama. Governor Scott Walker remains fairly popular in Northern Wisconsin, aided by the conservative Green Bay suburbs but also due to his unusual strength in fairly unionized counties. In 2010, the region gave Walker a hefty portion of its vote and amidst the June 2012 recall vote supported Walker even more strongly. Perhaps more importantly for Walker his strength in the region seems to be unique.
Neither John McCain nor Mitt Romney ran nearly as strongly in the region as Walker. Part of it may be Walker’s strong campaign infrastructure but it might also have to do with the 2010 election and the polarized nature of the state. Voters who backed Walker in 2010 and 2012, beyond conservatives and Republicans, seem unwilling to ditch the Governor. This can be seen by looking at the 2010 and 2012 recall exit polls. This trend appears to be true among young voters, a solid Democratic constituency. In 2010, young voters (18-29) made up 16% of the electorate and backed Barrett 52%-47%. In 2012 they made up 15% of the electorate and backed Barrett with 52.5% of the vote. Walker’s standing among the electoral bloc held steady.
Walker starts out in his reelection race as a slight favorite. His campaign infrastructure has been humming since 2010, he is flush with cash, partisans are excited to support him and the national environment is turning against Democrats. But his likely opponent, Mary Burke, is a former businesswomen with a strong personal story-line and the ability to self-fund her campaign. Even so, Walker has led in every poll taken on the race (not including those where the two were tied).
Unsurprisingly, this means Republicans and Democrats are sure to target highly polarized and segregated Southeastern Wisconsin. Despite Walker’s 2010 and 2012 victories by maximizing his support in suburban Milwaukee it is important to note Democratic turnout in the region was not light. In 2006, then Democratic Governor John Doyle attracted 61% of Milwaukee County’s vote out of 324,000 cast. In 2010, Barrett attracted 62% of the county’s vote out of 327,000 cast. In the 2012 recall Barrett and Democrats increased turnout by over 50,000 votes and he received 63% of the county’s votes. Yet, Walker still easily won his recall by increasing his margins in the Milwaukee suburbs and Northern Wisconsin.
Past results suggest both parties will max out their turnout in polarized Southeastern Wisconsin. Democrats are also sure to turn out their base in Dane County. This makes Northern Wisconsin even more important for Burke and Walker. If Walker can keep his support in the Green Bay suburbs and win rural and socially moderate Northwestern Wisconsin his campaign will be in great shape on election night. By contrast, Burke and Democrats must eat into Walker’s strength in the Green bay suburbs and weaken his lead in Northwest Wisconsin.
If this was pre-2011 Burke might have the advantage in this regard. Organized labor helped Doyle win two elections and was strongly pro-Barrett in 2010 and 2012. Labor mobilized thousands of new voters in both Dane and Milwaukee County during the recall. But organized labor’s clout has taken a severe hit in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin and their campaign coffers are not filling up as quickly. Further, while voters still support unions they do not necessarily agree with their partisan preferences. Despite union membership being strong in Northern Wisconsin it is outnumbered by non-union members who staunchly back Walker. Unions will still boast a robust turnout effort in the state but it will be a far cry from 2010 and 2012.
Even considering several of Walker’s campaign promises from 2010 have yet to be fulfilled, primarily creating $250K jobs and preventing property taxes from rising, he is still a strong incumbent. His policy successes from CBA reform, lowering income taxes and at least limiting property tax increases have helped keep his supporters in his corner. His political strategies have also boosted his campaigns. In his 2010 campaign Walker courted the Firefighters and Police Unions by telling them any bargaining reform would exempt them. These unions have traditionally leaned conservative. In 2012, these unions stayed true to their 2010 endorsement and backed Walker yet again. It is likely they will do so again in 2014 and deliver him around 30% of the union vote.
It is true for Wisconsin, as goes Southeastern Wisconsin so goes the state. But Northern Wisconsin usually follows suit despite the region’s conservative to moderate bent. Walker’s strength in the region could be his winning strategy come November of this year.