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Wisconsin Elections: The Numbers and the Stories We Tell Ourselves
When the polls close on election night, the numbers are fixed. This many showed up and voted. Each candidate on the ballot got this number of votes. This party won. That party lost.
We need stories to make sense of the numbers, help us understand what happened. Stories, however, are not fixed. They reflect a perspective. They make a point.
When Governor Scott Walker lost in 2018, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s reported he lost because voters had turned against him. “His performance declined significantly in cities of all stripes and regions. … blue cities … red cities … purple cities … affluent cities … blue-collar cities.”
That story was based on percentages. If one looks at vote totals, Walker did not lose support. His statewide total was up and he gained votes in 62 of the 72 counties.
He lost because some 290,000 more people showed up than in the previous election, and only 90,000 of them voted for him. More voters being motivated to vote and to vote for Tony Evers, was the story, rather than voters turning on Walker.
The usual story we are told is that voters exist on a continuum from conservative to liberal and any particular election is decided by which way the “moderates” in the middle swing. Results change because voters change their votes.
Citing the flip flops in which party won rural counties in gubernatorial and presidential elections in Wisconsin from 2008 to 2012, Katherine Cramer in Politics of Resentment tells us, “There is an independent streak in the rural areas, and it has mattered in recent elections.”
If one looks at ward results in elections over 10 or 12 years, however, the numbers say voters seldom change how they vote. People express their likes and dislikes not by changing their party preference but by choosing to vote or stay home. With Hillary Clinton, Democrats stayed home. With John McCain, Republicans stayed home.
Turnout is what decides elections. Motivation matters. Candidates matter. As Jay Leno once quipped, “If God had wanted us to vote, he would have given us candidates.”
If the story is one of turnout, it is more useful to think of voters as existing on a continuum from “completely engaged” at one end, to “I don’t give a damn” at the other. The “engaged” always vote. The “less committed” sometimes vote. The “don’t give a damns” never.
Elections are won by moving people from being less engaged to more engaged, from not voting to voting in this election. Elections are lost when “your” voters stay home.
In Western Wisconsin, before the Trump elections, there was a clear pattern. The greater the turnout, the better for Democrats. When Kathleen’s first ran for the state Senate against a Republican incumbent, the campaign targeted wards in which the numbers predicted that of every 10 additional voters persuaded to go to the polls, seven would vote Democrat. The campaign focused on increasing turnout in those wards. The numbers did not lie. Of the additional 7,000 who went to the polls, 5,000 voted for Kathleen, making her the winner.
So, what are the numbers and the story of the November, 2022, election when Democrat Tony Evers was reelected Governor by 90,000 votes, some 60,000 more than four years earlier when he defeated Scott Walker.
Considering the statewide turnout was 2.6 million, the change in numbers from 2018 was small. Turnout was down 17,000. The Democrat vote was up 34,000, the Republican vote down 27,000, and the vote for third party candidates down 24,000.
Those changes, however, were not uniform across the state. Turnout in Milwaukee County and counties with midsize cities was down 55,000; was even in the Milwaukee suburbs, up slightly in Madison, and up 31,000 in rural counties. There was a slight shift from urban to rural voters.
The Democrat vote was up in all areas except Milwaukee. The Republican vote was down in all areas except the rural.
One warning sign for Democrats was the lower turnout in Milwaukee, a county that votes 70 percent for Democrats. But that was not as big a blow to the Party as the media portrayed it. Much of the dip was in Republican votes. Evers actually increased his margin coming out of Milwaukee from four years earlier by 11,000.
The bigger warning for Democrats is the continued increase in new Republican voters in the more rural counties of the state that together have some 60 percent more voters than Milwaukee and Dane counties combined.
For Republicans, the good news is the continuing increase in new rural voters. The bad news: those gains were more than offset by the disaffection of voters in Milwaukee, Madison, the suburban counties around Milwaukee, and the mid-size cities in the rest of the state. In those areas combined Republicans lost 55,000 votes compared to the previous Governor’s race.
It is these underlying political dynamics that resulted in Democrats losing the 3rd Congressional District in Western Wisconsin long held by Ron Kind. There is no large urban area in the District to offset the new rural Republican voters. Some Democrat leaders blamed the loss on insufficient financial and logistical support from national Democrat committees. Evers, however, who spent millions and won statewide, also lost the Third District even though he had the additional advantage in his race of a third-party candidate pulling votes from his Republican opponent.
In politics, our tendency is not to take responsibility for losses. Circumstances outside our control, or the actions of others are the cause. As a candidate for Governor of Illinois once explained, the voters weren’t “ready” for his message. We seldom ask what can we do differently.
In a recent article in Mother Jones magazine, those interviewed identified the “brutal efficiency of Republican gerrymandering” and the “dramatic decrease in voter access over the past decade” as the forces driving politics in Wisconsin. Both absolve Democrats from responsibility. “They” are doing it to us. If we look closer, however, neither gerrymandering nor attempts at voter suppression, have significantly affected Democrat fortunes.
As for voter suppression, voters have not stayed away from the polls. Turnout in the last two off-year elections were the highest ever. Since 2004 when Bush lost to Kerry, turnout in presidential years has been remarkedly stable except in 2020 when turnout jumped as the Biden vote rebounded to match Obama’s high and Trump motivated 200,000 new voters to go to the polls and vote for him.
Democrats might do well to stop comlaining about voter suppression and start celebrating the resilience of voters who, in recent elections have gone to the polls in record numbers, despite impediments. Bemoaning adversity is a downer. Overcoming is exhilarating.
As for gerrymandering, the rural Democrats who gave the Party its last legislative majorities in 2008 lost their seats before the gerrymandering. Today in those same counties, it wouldn’t matter how district lines are drawn, new rural Republican voters ensure Republican victories.
What has affected Democrat fortunes, that doesn’t get into the story, is the Republican success in motivating new voters and moving them along the continuum from not voting to voting.
Instead of, or even in addition to, complaining about voter suppression and gerrymandering, Democrats, if they want to become a governing party, must figure out what they need to do to attract their own new voters and build support in all areas across the state. The walk lists for volunteers to knock on doors in the next election can’t be limited, as they have been, to already registered voters.
The first and essential step in fixing a problem is accurately identifying the cause. If you don’t get the cause right all the remedial activity is motion without progress.
Moving potential voters off their couches and along the continuum toward voting requires a counter to the widespread belief “it won’t make any difference”. The weariness and the dismissal of politics comes across even in casual conversations.
The recently elected, youngest member of Congress, a Democrat from Florida, recognized voters, particularly the young, “want something to vote for.” We have to tell them “what we are fighting for … the world we believe in.”
The potential audience is large. Some 40 percent of those eligible, seldom or never vote. If those who do vote are largely fixed in their habits, elections will be won by the Party that gives the uninvolved a reason to become involved, a motive to make the effort, and hope that in fact it will make a difference.