After the contentious dispute over collective bargaining and the high-profile effort to recall Governor Scott Walker, the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election has deservedly received considerable national attention.
Many polls show a close race, but every public poll of likely voters has shown Walker with a clear lead. Most significantly, every non-partisan poll since April has shown Walker with at least 50% of the vote.
The situation is somewhat more complicated and uncertain than Walker’s big advantage in the RCP advantage suggests. Complexity and uncertainty has given Democrats cause to hold out hope for four reasons.
First, several Democratic pollsters have released internal polling data showing Barrett more competitive than public polls. While internal polls are leaked often, the sheer number of internal Democratic polls is somewhat unusual. Even though these polls show a more competitive race, Barrett’s path to victory still looks narrow, as Walker is at or above 49% in every poll. To me, Walker’s 49% floor is the single most important data point heading into tonight’s election.
Second, Democrats have tended to outperform their final standing in public pre-election Wisconsin polls. Although that is a relatively consistent trend, the average gain in the four contests I considered (2010 Gov/Sen, 04/08 Pres) is a net-2.5% in the RCP average, far from sufficient to overcome Walker’s 6.7% lead in the RCP average, or even Walker’s 5% advantage if one is inclined to exclude a recent online WAA poll.
Third, Walker’s lead rests on the relatively GOP friendly electorate assumed by most public polls, leading some Democrats to hope that better than expected turnout might rebalance the race in their favor. Last night, for instance, PPP found that their sample of likely voters supported Obama by 7% in 2008, compared to his actual 14% win, suggesting that a large number of Democratic voters have dropped out of the electorate.
Some of the gap can be attributed to off-year turnout patterns. Young and non-white voters typically turnout less in off-year elections. Even if the recall is more like a Presidential election than a midterm, Obama’s not on the ballot and Democrats should count on replicating 08′ level youth or non-white turnout. It is also worth noting that the PPP poll’s predicted electorate is friendlier to Democrats than the 2010 midterm electorate, which voted for Obama by just 5%. The bottom line is that turnout is always a question. That’s why we count the votes. Absent a compelling reason why the polls should systemically understate Democratic turnout, I’m not inclined to assume the polls are wrong even though they obviously could be.
Fourth, some say that Barrett has some late-game momentum. While there might be traces of momentum if you squint properly, it’s far from clear in the polling. Most importantly, there isn’t any evidence that Walker is slipping. If Walker is at 50%, it doesn’t matter how much Barrett surges.
If Walker wins as anticipated, he’ll start by building huge margins in the extremely conservative suburbs outside of Milwaukee. Walker’s performance in the Milwaukee suburbs was astounding: his 71.4% in Waukesha County was better than any Republican presidential candidate since Harding. Last night’s PPP poll showed Walker with 70% in the Milwaukee suburbs, suggesting that Walker can again count on elevated support in these conservative bastions.
Barrett’s challenge is to overcome Walker’s huge advantage around Milwaukee. The former Milwaukee Mayor will start in his home city of Milwaukee and Madison’s Dane County, home to the State Capitol, the University of Wisconsin, and many of the public-sector employees targeted by Walker’s reforms. The question, however, is how much room Barrett has to grow. In the 2010 midterm, Barrett won an impressive 68% of the vote in Dane County, actually exceeding Kerry 66% and Gore’s 61%. Similarly, Barrett won 61.6% in Milwaukee County, just short of Kerry’s 61.7%.
Given that Madison was ground zero of the collective bargaining fight and that Barrett is a former Milwaukee Mayor, it isn’t hard to envision how Barrett could improve over his 2010 standing. Will Barrett improve by as much as Walker did in the Milwaukee suburbs? The last PPP poll says no, as they showed Barrett up 61-35 in Milwaukee County.
If Dane and Milwaukee Counties can’t overcome Walker’s advantage in the Milwaukee suburbs, Barrett will need a showing across the rest of the state, which we can roughly divide between rural Wisconsin and northeast Wisconsin.
Unlike many states, rural Wisconsin is quite competitive and Democrats can usually count on a strong performance in the progressive/populist southwestern quadrant of the state. In 2010, Walker made big inroads into many counties won by either Kerry or Gore, and these counties will provide a nice indication of who has the advantage.
Even if Barrett recaptures lost ground in southwest Wisconsin, he might still need to make up the ground lost in the Milwaukee suburbs, so his burden across the countryside might be greater than Kerry or Gore. If these traditionally Democratic areas aren’t enough, Barrett might need to compensate with a strong showing in northeastern Wisconsin, including Green Bay, Madison, and Appleton.
If the election is close, Barrett won’t win northeastern Wisconsin, but perhaps he reduce Walker’s margins by enough to make up for losses outside of Milwaukee. If he can’t do that with a big showing in Madison or Milwaukee, the relatively moderate and well educated Appelton-Oshkosh area might be a decent alternative. Obama did exceptionally well there in 2008, suggesting that some of these voters are persuadable.
The Wisconsin electorate is closely divided with Walker at or near 50% of the vote. Although Barrett might have a narrow path to victory, Walker enters election day with the advantage. Republicans are clearly energized and it’s always unwise to bet against a candidate standing at or above 49% in every poll.
Live blog tonight!