Sabato's Crystal Ball

Notes on the State of Politics: Recapping Wisconsin

UVA Center for Politics June 7th, 2012

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Walker’s Wisconsin win not necessarily a harbinger

As soon as the recall of Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) was finalized in mid-March, the Crystal Ball made Walker a favorite, giving the race a rating of leans Republican. We upgraded his chances roughly two weeks ago to likely Republican, and he ended up winning by a relatively comfortable seven-point margin.

Walker led in all recent public polling, and we also sensed that a critical Democratic/Independent slice of the state’s electorate was sick of the constant turmoil caused by recall mania over the past year and a half. As exit polling indicated, many voters viewed recall as a remedy only to be used for official misconduct in office, not to be employed for simple disagreement with an elected official’s policy choices. These voters made the difference for Scott Walker, and they are not necessarily available to Mitt Romney. Wisconsin may or may not turn into a swing state this year — that’s yet to be determined — but the presidential contest will be run under different conditions with two candidates not named Walker and Tom Barrett (the latter having been, for a second time, a second-rate contender). There are five months to go until Nov. 6, and it’s unclear what will happen between now and then.

One other thing: The Wisconsin recall is yet another example of the limitations of exit poll results, which are not always accurate, at least in their top-line, horse race numbers. The first waves in the Wisconsin exit poll showed a 50-50 race, so the early reporting and projections on TV bore little relation to the reality of the tabulated vote. Could we all make a note to discount the top-line results of the November 6 exit poll — and the news media’s breathless projections derived from it? They were wrong on election night 1992, forecasting a big Clinton victory when it turned out to be a quite modest five percentage point (43%) victory over President George H.W. Bush. Then there was that not-so-minor snafu back in 2000 with the exit poll in Florida. And exit polling in 2004 created the Kerry administration for several hours; the unadjusted results showed Kerry winning handily in almost all the swing states, to the chagrin of President George W. Bush’s campaign staffers.

The truth is, Republicans disproportionately distrust the media and pollsters, and many won’t be interviewed coming out of the ballot stations. Apparently, there’s no good way to correct for this. Solution: use the group breakdowns but not the top-line data. This matters in a national general election because inaccurate projections made early on the East Coast can potentially affect voting in other time zones.

— Larry J. Sabato

Another view of the recall:  Turnout Key to Walker Victory

An examination of the voting patterns and exit poll results in Tuesday’s Wisconsin recall election indicates that turnout was a key factor in incumbent Republican Scott Walker’s victory over his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. While there was a heavy turnout for a special election, the final total of just over 2.5 million votes fell well short of the nearly 3 million votes cast in the 2008 presidential election. And Republicans appear to have done a better job of getting their voters to the polls. Turnout for the recall election was 91% of 2008 turnout in suburban heavily Republican Waukesha County, the largest GOP county in the state, but only 83% of 2008 turnout in Milwaukee County, the largest Democratic county in the state.

The same pattern was evident in the exit poll results. The 2012 recall electorate was noticeably older, whiter, more conservative and more Republican than the 2008 electorate. Voters age 65 and older outnumbered those under the age of 30 by 18% to 16% on Tuesday. In contrast, four years ago, 18-29 year-old voters outnumbered those 65 and older by 22% to 14%. Most significantly on Tuesday, Republicans outnumbered Democrats by 35% to 34% according to the exit poll. Four years ago, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 39% to 33%.

Despite Scott Walker’s fairly easy win on Tuesday, Democrats apparently were able to retake control of the state senate by defeating one GOP senator. And Democrats can take heart from one result from the exit poll. Even with a Republican-leaning electorate, Barack Obama led Mitt Romney 51% to 44% when exit poll respondents were asked how they would vote in the presidential election. These results suggest that Obama should be considered a favorite to carry the state again, especially if Democrats turn out in larger numbers in November.

— Alan I. Abramowitz

Other races on Tuesday: Democrats lost in the jungle

In the days leading up to the California primary on Tuesday night, analysts — this one included — pointed to California’s 26th Congressional District as a potential trouble spot for Democrats. Because of the new “jungle primary” — where all candidates run in the same primary regardless of party, and the top two advance to a general election runoff — Democrats worried that their candidate in this winnable district would finish behind a Republican and an independent former Republican. They breathed a sigh of relief when Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D) advanced to face state Sen. Tony Strickland (R).

But Democrats apparently should have paid the same amount of attention to the race in CA-31, where four Democratic candidates took 48.4% of the vote — but none will be on the ballot in the fall. That’s because two Republicans, Rep. Gary Miller and state Sen. Bob Dutton, finished in the top two slots. We’re switching our rating of this seat from leans Democratic to safe Republican.

All in all, nine of 53 California House races in the fall will feature two members of the same party (seven Democratic races — including member vs. member contests between Brad Sherman and Howard Berman and Janice Hahn and Laura Richardson — and two Republican ones). It’s an interesting political science experiment; even in heavily Democratic or Republican districts, very liberal or very conservative contenders may need crossover votes from moderates, or even members of the other party, in order to win in November. That said, no independents are expected to be elected in the fall, weakening the argument that the jungle primary will promote bipartisanship and moderation.

In other primaries across the country, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D) smoked Rep. Steve Rothman (D) in a New Jersey member vs. member race that served as proxy fight in the never-ending Barack Obama/Bill Clinton rivalry (Clinton backed Pascrell, Obama backed Rothman). Bernalillo County Commissioner Michelle Lujan Grisham won the three-way Democratic primary for New Mexico’s First District (Clinton-backed Marty Chavez finished a disappointing third). That New Mexico district (which we favor Democrats to hold) is currently held by Rep. Martin Heinrich (D), and it used to be held by ex-Rep. Heather Wilson (R); Heinrich and Wilson comfortably won their primaries Tuesday and will face off in a Senate contest this fall that slightly leans to the Democrat.

Finally, in Montana, ex-Rep. Rick Hill (R) advanced from a crowded Republican field to face Attorney General Steve Bullock (D) in the state’s competitive gubernatorial race (popular Democratic incumbent Brian Schweitzer is term-limited). Hill is the slight favorite, if only because of Mitt Romney’s presidential coattails, but this should be a competitive contest.

— Kyle Kondik