Reading the Wisconsin Tea Leaves

Reading the Wisconsin Tea Leaves

By Sean Trende - April 7, 2011

As of this writing, conservative Supreme Court Justice David Prosser is trailing his liberal challenger JoAnne Kloppenberg by about 200 votes. There will probably be a recount, and it is conceivable, though highly unlikely, that it could reverse the outcome. (UPDATE: As part of the vote canvass -- a precursor to the recount -- Waukesha County found that it had failed to report approximately 14,000 ballots. When counted, they give Prosser a lead in excess of 7,000 votes, or about .4 percent.)

Of course, no one outside of Wisconsin is following this race because they particularly care about the partisan make up of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin. They care about two things: (1) the extent to which Democratic prospects have improved from last fall and (2) what it might tell us about Democratic prospects in the upcoming recall elections.

The latter point is important: If the Democrats can flip three state Senate seats -- they are challenging all eight eligible Republicans -- they would take control of the Senate. This, in turn, could lead to further recall elections next year, when the remainder of the senators and the governor would be eligible to be recalled.

The results offered something for both parties, though they probably offered more to the Republicans. Democrats were hopeful (and Republicans afraid) that the pendulum had already swung back toward a 2008 environment. Republicans were hopeful (and Democrats afraid) that not much had changed from 2010. The results portend an environment somewhere in the middle, if not a touch closer to 2010.

As for the pending recall elections, there are three possibilities for what the results portend: (a) nothing, (b) good news for Democrats and (c) good news for Republicans. Once again, the results are a bit of a mixed bag, but with better news for Republicans on balance. In the end, the signs aren't great for the Democratic recall efforts, and the race is more interesting for what it tells us about the state of party coalitions and the prospect for an emerging Democratic (or Republican) majority than anything else.

(a) The elections portend nothing. No one has really been talking about this possibility, but it is an important one to bear in mind. The only other Wisconsin Supreme Court justice to lose his re-election bid in the past 40 years did so in the spring of 2008. That year, the state's first African American justice lost to a white conservative. Of course, that portended nothing for the fall, when Obama won by 13 points. And just last May, pundits were convinced that Republicans had to pick up Jack Murtha's seat if they were going to take the House in the fall.

This race almost certainly has a closer relationship to the summer elections than those two races had to the fall elections, both in terms of temporal proximity and the issues involved. But it is worth remembering that even in the Prosser/Kloppenberg race, issues specific to the candidates played a large role.

(b) The elections are good news for Democrats. There is certainly plenty of good news for Democrats here. It is unusual for Supreme Court justices to lose; only two have done so in the last 40 years. Prosser emerged from the primary with 55 percent of the vote; it is highly unlikely that he would have lost absent the passage of the collective bargaining law, and he almost certainly would not have lost had the race been held in 2010. Wisconsin Republicans have clearly taken a step back, at least in the short term.

And of course, winning is wining; moral victories are for minor league coaches. To the extent the election was a referendum on the collective bargaining law, it lost, however narrowly. It will now be judged by a 4-3 liberal majority, rather than a 4-3 conservative majority. There was one other win last night that was perhaps more noteworthy: A Democrat captured the Milwaukee County executive office by over 20 points. It was a special election to replace none other than Scott Walker.

(c) The elections are good news for Republicans. Nevertheless, while there was some good news for Democrats in the big picture, this doesn't portend particularly well for the summer and next fall. This was an election held in the midst of a perfect storm of Democratic enthusiasm and outrage. The spring elections are usually low-turnout affairs, which maximize the potential effect of labor union organization and GOTV efforts (this, more than money, is the real contribution of labor). Democrats used this opportunity to take a Democratic-leaning state and turn it . . . purple.

Remember, while this election was doubtless a step backwards for the Wisconsin Republicans, Prosser's percentage was only two points lower than Walker's and Ron Johnson's from 2010. It was a touch higher than Bush's in 2004, and was seven points higher than McCain's.

In February, there was an open, four candidate primary. Prosser won 55 percent of the vote. While reducing Prosser's 55 percent of the vote to 49.99 percent was no mean feat, neither was it a colossal undertaking. Kloppenberg started with a base of 45 percent, as consolidating the vote of the three liberal Democratic challengers from that primary was fairly simple. Once the electorate became engaged and the race politicized, it was inevitable that the natural partisan tilt of the state would reduce Prosser's margins.

The general election did not go well for Prosser, even setting aside the collective bargaining bill. Among other things, e-mails came to light where Prosser called the chief justice of the court a "bitch" and vowed to "destroy her," and there were accusations that he had failed to prosecute child molesters. All of this had more than a de minimis effect on his re-election effort.

Finally, while it is true that incumbents have rarely lost, the typical judicial election is a non-election. Going back to 2000, only four justices have faced an opponent for re-election; two have lost. Including open seats, half of the races have been decided by two points or less, and only once (in 2000) has a candidate exceeded 60 percent of the vote. At the Court of Appeals level, 25 of the 28 races have involved unopposed judges. Out of the remaining three, one lost.

(d) The summer recall elections. These results show a closely divided state. But a closely divided state will probably be insufficient for the Democrats to flip three state Senate seats. To see why, consider the following table. It shows the Republican candidates who are eligible for recall, the percentage their district gave to Walker, McCain and Bush, the average of these three results numbers and, for the Republicans, the results of a PPP/DailyKos/SEIU poll from a few weeks back of whether voters would support a recall and who they would vote for in the recall election (compliments to the Journal Sentinel and Swing State Project for the data).

Senator Dan Kapanke is probably in some trouble; his district is quite heavily Democratic. But the remaining Republicans are running in districts that are more Republican than the state as a whole. While the gerrymandered lines make it difficult to determine precisely how Prosser fared in these districts, it appears that he ran poorly in the 32nd, about even in the 10th, and won handily in the remaining districts. In a year when the state is "purple," we would probably expect these members to survive tight races (Randy Hopper also has some rather severe personal issues that could contribute to his demise).

The flip side is that Republicans are attempting to trigger recall elections for the eligible Democrats. Here are the numbers for those seats:

Senator Holperin -- who barely won his election in the good Democratic year of 2008 -- looks vulnerable, and Republican performance in three other seats is decent. It looks as though Prosser ran well in three of the four swing districts.

In this environment, Republicans may lose a net seat or two, but it would be an uphill battle to flip the three seats necessary to claim control of the chamber. This also bodes poorly for recall efforts against the remaining Republican senators and Governor Walker in 2012, as the memories of these events will fade, although of course a lot can change politically between now and then.

(e) Permanent majorities are not feasible. There is a larger lesson to be learned from all of this. For the better part of a decade, observers have been claiming that a new Democratic majority of liberals, minorities, working class whites and professionals is emerging (there was chatter of a Republican majority for awhile, but it faded away after 2006). But as Tuesday showed, the interests of these disparate groups simply are not sufficiently aligned to create a stable majority.

Consider the following map, which shows how counties swung from the rough tie of 2004 to the rough tie of 2011. Counties become redder as they swing more heavily toward Republicans, and bluer as they swing toward Democrats. White counties swung less than three points in either direction:

There actually was a bit of a realignment of the parties here. The blue collar counties in the north (settled by Finns, actually), along the western edge of the state (Norwegian/Swedish) and the liberal areas around Dane (Madison) County reacted to the budget showdown by moving toward the Democrats. This is exactly what everyone expected would happen.

So why was the race even close? Because the suburbs of Milwaukee and the blue collar German counties in the east swung against the Democrats.* If you run a regression of how the counties moved from 2004 through 2011 against countywide per capita income, and control for the unique situations in Dane (liberal college town, state employees), Menominee (large Native American population) and Milwaukee (heavily heterogenous), there is a statistically significant relationship between higher incomes and movement toward Republicans. What the suburbs wanted and what the working class wanted were in tension, and so any dominant Democratic majority that could be built based upon the two splintered.

If we compare 2008 and 2011, we see the same thing -- provided of course that we control for Prosser's overall improvement of seven points over McCain:

Once again, the Democratic shifts in the blue collar and "core liberal" areas are countered by a Republican shift in the Milwaukee area, and a shift in the Germanic blue collar areas in the east. Had Kloppenberg been able to hold on to suburbanites that voted for Kerry and Obama, she would have dominated. Likewise, had Prosser not lost some blue collar areas, he would have won handily.

As I noted a few weeks ago, we've seen similar results across the Midwest. This is especially true of Ohio, where Governor Strickland ran a populist campaign excoriating John Kasich for his ties to Lehman Brothers. Strickland ran well in blue collar areas of the state, but saw Democratic support collapse in the suburbs. This analysis doesn't even begin to get into the tensions between liberals and the white working class, the white working class and Latinos, Latinos and African Americans; the list goes on. We are a country of diverse interests, and it is simply impossible -- for either party -- to build a stable governing coalition for any extended period of time.** Someone inevitably ends up on the outside, and decides to take a long look at the other side.



* This German/Scandanavian split actually goes back for quite some time. There is a strongly significant relationship between a county's "swing" from 1936 to 1940 and the percentage of the county's residents that were of Germanic, Polish, or Norwegian descent. Counties settled by Scandanavians or Poles -- countries that Hitler had invaded -- swung heavily toward Roosevelt. Counties settled by Germans swung against him.

** Yes I am familiar with the Walter Dean Burnham school of realignment thought. No, I do not agree with it, a topic for another column.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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