Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What is Wisconsin's Message?

I didn't catch the name of the analyst on MSNBC last night who made this general point that I think is correct: Walker surviving the recall is very bad from a policy perspective but there was certainly a lot of bad news for Mitt Romney in electoral terms.

After hearing this, I quickly flipped over to CNN to hear Gloria Borger making the opposite case for the electoral message. Borger argued that Wisconsin was a test-run for the Republican ground game for the Fall and Walker's victory means their ground game is in great shape.

I'll outline this more in full below but the short version is that Gloria Borger is just dead wrong as the exit poll numbers revealed very, very bad numbers for Mitt Romney. Now, the longer explanation.

I have been ranting quite a bit about how many pundits insist on calling Pennsylvania a swing state when it just isn't. See here, here, and here for examples. And, by the way, there's a new poll out in Pennsylvania this morning that has Obama up by 12 there. Since some have complained that I need to stop ranting about that, perhaps I should re-focus my rants on Wisconsin ... which is also not all that swing-statish. Let's go to the tape:

Obama won Wisconsin by 14 in 2008. Kerry eked out a victory by less than half a point in 2004. Gore won Wisconsin but the margin was even closer in 2000. But, unlike Pennsylvania, which Republicans last won (narrowly) in 1988, you have to go all the way back to 1984 (almost 30 years) to find a Republican candidate who won in Wisconsin. I must admit, I found it curious that Jim Messina recently put out a video from Obama HQ indicating that the Obama campaign sees Wisconsin as a tossup. In the video, Messina discusses the electoral map and puts 243 electoral votes (solidly or leaning) in Obama's column with 191 for Romney and he points to 8 states for a total of 104 electoral votes in the tossup column ... including Wisconsin. Take a look at's latest trend estimate on Wisconsin:

There have been 16 publicly-released polls of the Obama/Romney trial heat in Wisconsin in 2012. One has them tied and one has Romney ahead by 1 (back in mid-January). The rest have Obama ahead by 4 to 17 points. The three most recent polls are all of likely voters and they have Obama ahead by 8, 6, and 10 points respectively. Finally, last night's exit pollsters asked respondents how they would vote in the presidential race in the Fall and Obama was ahead by 7 points.

So, if I'm right that Wisconsin is not as much of a swing state as everyone seems to be saying, why did Walker survive? There are two reasons both of which are pointed out by a very smart piece by First Read this morning. On turnout, Gloria Borger is right that Republicans turned out a lot of voters ... but so did Democrats. First Read provides turnout numbers for the 2012 Recall, the 2010 race that first elected Walker, and for the 2008 presidential race in Wisconsin:

2012: 2,503,745 (Walker 1,331,076- Barrett 1,158,337)
2010: 2,160,832 (Walker 1,128,941- Barrett 1,004,303)
2008: 2,983,417 (Obama 1,677,211- McCain 1,262,393)

Turnout was better last night than in 2010 but not as good as 2008. The better the turnout, the better the Democrats will do. The exit polls last night suggest Obama would win by 7 with last night's turnout. Turnout in November is likely to be closer to 2008 levels than last night's levels. Putting all that together, I think Obama's 7 point lead in last night's exit probably has some upside for November.

The second thing First Read points out about Walker's victory last night is that exit pollsters asked respondents about the legitimacy of the recall mechanism. 60% of respondents said that recalls are only legitimate for official misconduct. Another 10% said that recalls are NEVER appropriate. So, 70% of voters just didn't think this was an appropriate way to deal with policy differences. Now, Scott Walker will ignore those numbers and claim a mandate but the reality is that that means a very small number of voters did not approve of Walker's position on unions but voted to keep him in office anyway. He survived the recall because of a coalition of voters who agree with him on his changes to labor laws (52% according to the exit polls) and voters who disagree with him but think the recall is not an appropriate mechanism.

One thing First Read got wrong in their analysis was this line:
Wisconsin still looks a lot more Pennsylvania (a state floating between Lean Dem and Toss-up) than Iowa (which is a battleground where Obama has some work to do)
Yes, Wisconsin looks a lot like Pennsylvania but Pennsylvania is NOT "floating between Lean Dem and Toss-up." Pennsylvania is hovering around "Likely Dem" and Wisconsin is certainly at least leaning towards the President.

And, since they mentioned Iowa ... well, I'll have more to say on that at another time.

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