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Wisconsin vote dispels notion of a mellowed electorate

The voters who opted to keep Gov. Scott Walker in office largely resembled those of 2010, leaving Democrats to struggle to regain the support of young and white working-class voters.

June 06, 2012|By David Lauter and Bob Secter, Washington Bureau and Chicago Tribune
  • Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s Cabinet and staff greet him at the state Capitol the day after the Republican’s victory in a recall election.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s Cabinet and staff greet him at the… (Andy Manis, Associated…)

MILWAUKEE — For months, optimists in the Democratic camp have argued that the wave of anxious — sometimes angry — voters that swept Republicans to victory in 2010 had begun to subside, just in time for President Obama's run for reelection.

Wisconsin's recall election put a torch to that idea.

In almost all respects, the voters who opted to keep Republican Gov. Scott Walker in office resembled those of 2010. The one significant difference was that Tuesday's turnout was larger.

Democrats continue to face problems with two crucial voting groups, as Tuesday's voting underscored, said Paul Maslin, a longtime Democratic strategist based in Wisconsin.

"The under-30 vote has really cratered. 'Yes we can' has become 'Maybe we can't' — and they're getting hit with a bad job market and failed expectations," Maslin said. And among white working-class voters, who deserted the Democrats in droves in 2010, the party continues to struggle.

"Obama has to do much better" among those voters than Democrats did Tuesday night in order to win reelection, he said — an opinion echoed by other Democratic advisors.

Exit polls of Tuesday's voters back up those contentions. When Obama carried Wisconsin in 2008, people younger than 30 accounted for more than 1 in 5 voters; Obama carried almost two-thirds of their votes. Tuesday night, fewer than 1 in 6 Wisconsin voters were younger than 30 and the Democratic candidate, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, won just over half of them.

In 2008, Obama won 54% of white voters in Wisconsin, according to the exit polls. Tuesday night, Barrett won only 43% of them. (Early versions of the exit poll underestimated the size of Walker's vote, but the final exit poll numbers have been weighted to match the actual turnout.)

The results may not yet mean that Obama is in trouble in Wisconsin — a state that Democrats have won in presidential elections since 1988.

In fact, the exit polls showed that Tuesday's voters would have gone for Obama by a margin of 7 percentage points. But that's half the margin by which Obama carried the state in 2008, and the decline bodes poorly for other industrial-belt states that started out with closer margins — particularly the region's biggest prize, Ohio.

(Obama benefits from a significant number of ticket-splitting voters in the state, pollster Charles Franklin of Marquette University Law School noted. "Wisconsin has quite a few swing voters whose heads do not explode from supporting Walker and Obama," he said.)

In the aftermath of the voting, Republican strategists tried to avoid sounding overconfident. Democrats, meanwhile, talked up reasons that Wisconsin's results were peculiar to the state. They focused in particular on the financial advantage — more than 2 to 1 — that Walker and his backers had over Barrett and his allies. Many Democratic spokesmen referred to a 7-to-1 Walker financial advantage, a calculation that leaves out the substantial spending by outside groups on both sides.

Wisconsin "does not today lean Republican, but it is in play," Ed Gillespie, a senior strategist for the Romney campaign, told reporters at a breakfast hosted by Bloomberg News. "Of course we're going to complete there" in November, he said.

White House spokesman Jay Carney characterized the race as essentially a do-over of the 2010 contest between Walker and Barrett. Last time, Walker won by 5 points. This time, he won by 7, 53% to 46%, but only after "he outspent his challenger" by taking advantage of "an enormous amount of outside corporate money and huge donations," Carney told reporters on Air Force One. "I certainly wouldn't read much into yesterday's result beyond its effect on who's occupying the governor's seat in Wisconsin," he said.

Despite the Democrats' focus on the Republican money advantage, there was little evidence of its having been decisive. Well over 90% of voters in the exit poll said they had made up their minds before the campaign even began. That suggests that the barrage of television advertisements over the last month changed few minds.

Nor did Democrats lack resources to get out their vote. Indeed, in the party's two strongholds, Milwaukee and Dane County (which includes Madison), Barrett improved on his 2010 margin by about 40,000 votes. But that gain was washed away by Walker's improved margins in smaller metropolitan areas such as Green Bay, Appleton and Racine, which Obama carried in 2008. Democrats also won a state Senate recall, allowing them to recapture a majority in the chamber, at least until November's elections.

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