Wisconsin is one of the most polarized states in the country. Republicans and Democrats alike turn out in massive numbers for their party’s nominees across the board. Yet the results of recent elections show GOP voters are more consistent than their Democratic counterparts. In 2008, Barack Obama won the state by 14% and the party gained legislative seats. A mere two years later the GOP took the legislature and every statewide Constitutional office. The GOP also took down two Democratic Congressman and Senator Russ Feingold with conservative businessman Ron Johnson. Fast forward two years and the state voted for Barack Obama by 6%.
Wisconsin’s political personality could be considered split. The state has not voted for a Republican President since 1984. Yet, the state has voted for a Republican Governor in six out of the last eight midterms (four of them for former GOP Governor Tommy Thompson). The state has also often featured a split legislature as well. The reasons for this are numerous as can be seen here, here, here and here by excellent research conducted between the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Marquette University. Ultimately Republicans would be better served by focusing on states that can be flipped in the electoral college. Wisconsin is not one of those states.
Research shows Wisconsin has some of the most partisan voters, legislature and highest turnout in the nation. On the surface this would seem to benefit Republicans and it explains why Republicans have made serious plays for the state’s electoral votes since 1992. But this has also worked in reverse for the party. The GOP has a mobilized base but so do Democrats and more importantly there are more Democrats than Republicans in the state.
Republicans have consistently maximized their turnout in Southeast Wisconsin. Consider turnout and GOP performance in Waukesha County, the largest and strongest GOP county in the state. In 2002 turnout in Waukesha was 142,000 votes and 69% for the GOP nominee. In 2006 turnout increased to 176,000 votes but the GOP nominee only garnered 63% of the vote. Move forward to 2010 and turnout jumped to an astonishing 188,000 votes and Scott Walker captured an unheard of 71.5% of the county vote. During the 2012 recall the county’s turnout increased to 212,340 and Walker captured 72.5% of the vote. A mere five months later in the Presidential election turnout increased to a staggering 243,856 votes and Romney captured 63% of the vote.
It is said in physics for each reaction there is an equal and opposite reaction. In Wisconsin politics the same holds true. As GOP turnout has increased so has Democratic turnout. Consider Democratic turnout in Dane County (home to Madison) and Milwaukee and Democratic showings in each since 2002. In 2002, turnout in Dane was 172,033 and Milwaukee saw 267,725 voters turn out. Doyle won 56% of the vote (in a three-way race) in each county. In 2006 turnout increased in Dane to 213,940 (69% for Doyle) and 324,068 in Milwaukee (61.5% for Doyle). Even as Walker was rolling in 2010 turnout in these two counties grew from 2006. In Dane turnout reached 220,000 (68% went for Barrett) and Milwaukee saw 341,000 turn out (61.5% for Barrett). During the 2012 gubernatorial recall turnout in Dane grew to 253,383 (69% for Barrett). In Milwaukee turnout eclipsed 382,000 and Barrett captured over 63% of the vote.
GOP turnout has been unable to counter Democratic turnout during Presidential years and the incredible polarization in the state ensures the GOP can only win in Presidential years if Democratic turnout drops. This was made apparent in 2004 when George Bush lost the state by a mere 11,000 votes. GOP turnout substantially increased from 2000 but so did Democratic turnout. In 2012, GOP turnout increased in every Milwaukee suburb (relative to 2008) and yet Romney still lost the state by 6%.
Despite this the state is always a tantalizing opportunity for Republicans to steal electoral votes. The mobilized Republican base always seems to signal to GOP Presidential campaigns the state can be swung if just a few more votes are eked out of suburban Milwaukee. The result is precious campaign resources being funneled into the state and while turnout is increased it does not overcome the Democrats built-in partisan advantage.
Republicans might have a shot if they can find a way to persuade the shrinking middle that their way is the better way. Unfortunately, the chances of this happening are small. Partisan voters have increasingly dominated elections in the state at every level. Consider this stat. In 1994, a whopping 36% of voters split their ticket for Governor Tommy Thompson and Herb Kohl. In 2010 the number of split ticket voters dropped to 7.1% and in 2012 a mere 6% split their tickets for President and Senator. Put simply, the persuadable middle has either disappeared or becoming increasingly partisan (just like the rest of the state).
GOP hopes to reach urban voters seem slim to none. The breathtaking partisan shift that has taken place in the state has also ensured that liberals live with liberals and conservatives with conservatives. This geographic self sorting means that both sides voters have different policy interests (just like Southern whites and blacks). Urban blacks and whites in Milwaukee have a different viewpoint on public transportation and infrastructure spending than a suburban Republican who commutes to work and owns two cars. Likewise, their views on spending and taxes will also greatly differ. With each party’s candidates speaking to their base there remains little opportunity to take policy positions that speak to the other side.
There is hope the state could see a little of a moderate repositioning. Despite the death of split ticket voting the 2012 recall saw something extraordinary. According to exit polls 51% of recall voters backed Obama and 44% Romney in November. But while only 6% of Romney supporters backed Barrett a full 18% of Obama supporters backed Walker. These voters, younger, moderate and less interested in politics could become the new swing vote in Presidential and statewide elections.
Combine partisan intensity, matching turnout increases and a dearth of split ticket voters and Republicans are consistently at a disadvantage in the state at a Presidential level. But in the future the GOP could be competitive in the state. It has been noted the state has been trending Republican since 1988 and the white vote has increasingly moved to the GOP at the Presidential level. A talented GOP candidate who can unite the GOP base, rural moderates and not infuriate the liberal base could capitalize on the state’s increasing Republican white population. George Bush accomplished one and two but he miserably failed three. In the near future Republicans should not expect Wisconsin’s partisan bent to shift at the Presidential level. Other Midwestern states such as Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Minnesota are a different story.