A lot of attention has been given to the low turnout in last week’s midterm elections nationwide (estimated at 36.4%). And while Wisconsin’s turnout was well below the levels in the 2012 presidential election that led to more than 3 million votes being cast, we actually held up quite well when compared to the dreadful numbers in the rest of the nation.
The turnout for last week’s election in Wisconsin is estimated at a little over 54% based on the unofficial vote total of just over 2.4 million. This is slightly below the 2012 recall election turnout of 57.8% and 2.52 million, but well above the sub-50% levels of 2010, when only 2.16 million votes were cast (in fact, Mary Burke got almost as many votes last week as Scott Walker got in his “landslide” in 2010).
But what I want to look into is to compare these gubernatorial turnouts with the presidential turnout that gave Barack Obama 53% of the vote in Wisconsin in 2012, and see if there is some kind of correlation with the turnout. Conversely, if there is not a major turnout differential between certain parts of the state, that might tell you that the reason Walker has won has more to do with shifts of voter preference vs. a straight turnout game.
First of all, let’s look at the composition of the electorates by geography. What I will do is take the 2012 presidential turnout of the top 10 counties and/or areas of Wisconsin that cast the largest number of votes, along with the number from the rest of the state. Then, I will compare it with the 2014 turnout figures (unofficial). For the sake of comparison, I am splitting up the City of Milwaukee (very blue-voting) from the rest of Milwaukee County (varied, but with a slight GOP lean). I am also going to consolidate the “Ring of Fire” pro-GOP counties bordering Milwaukee (Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington, or the “WOW Counties”), and then see what we get.
The largest differences here involve the diluting of the high-turnout WOW Counties and blue-voting Dane County in the 2012 presidential election- especially the WOW Counties. Those 2 counties added a combined 1.3% of the share of total votes in 2014 vs 2012 (23.57% vs. 22.27%), while the City of Milwaukee lost 0.76% of its 2012 share in 2014. The blue-leaning counties of Rock and Kenosha also had a sizable increase in their vote share in 2012 compared to 2014, so there is an argument to be made that the Dems failed to maintain the turnout advantage in those areas that helped the state re-elect President Obama.
This is another way of showing the changes in the share of the votes for these large counties and areas in Gov Walker’s three elections, to see how this works in those lower-than-presidential-turnout elections. As you’ll see, the WOW Counties grabbed a huge share of the electorate in 2010, and while it’s still the largest, some of that advantage is being slowly eaten away, while Dane County is grabbing an increasing share. This will also show that the rest of Milwaukee County is another place whose influence has gone down over the last 4 years.
And while all areas of Wisconsin had drop-offs in turnout in 2014 compared to both the November 2012 presidential election and the June 2012 recall election, this chart will show you that some places dropped off more severely than other.
Note that the City of Milwaukee, Rock County, Kenosha County, and Racine County had turnout drop-offs of more than 30% in 2014 compared to the 2012 presidential election. Each of these places include four of the five counties in Wisconsin that have an African-American population of more than 5% (Dane County and the non-City portion of Milwaukee County are the only two other areas of the state that have an African-American population above 5%), and that might be something worth keeping an eye on in 2016 with Obama not being on the ballot. On the flip side, the WOW Counties and Dane County had the smallest dropoffs (WOW at 19.87%, Dane at 20.81%), and everyone else was largely in the mid-to-upper 20s in percentage of dropoff.
What these charts indicate to me is the following.
·Dem turnout did drop off in key areas of Southeastern and South Central Wisconsin compared to other areas of the state.
·The red-voting areas of suburban Milwaukee are being slowly diluted, especially as overall turnout around the state goes up with presidential elections.
·Scott Walker used a turnout advantage in the WOW Counties and other red-leaning areas of the Milwaukee Metro Area to win in 2010, but won in 2012 and 2014 by shifting voters toward his side in other parts of the start, especially in Northeast Wisconsin (noted in this post).
So bottom line- for Dems to win in 2016 and beyond, they can’t rely on higher turnouts and favorable demographics to carry them through. They will need to also convince some voters to their side, which would hold down large GOP leads in certain areas for statewide elections (particularly in the eastern half of the state), and would win back seats in the Legislature. Turnout has not turned the outcomes in those areas toward the GOP - voter preference has - and as part of the autopsy of this election, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin should figure out why that has happened.