The results are in on Tuesday’s election for Wisconsin Supreme Court, and Democrat Jo Ann Kloppenburg has come out ahead of incumbent Republican David Prosser by 204 votes out of nearly 1,500,000 cast. If this lead holds up through the recount process, Democrats will have a 4-3 majority on this highly politicized court, and Kloppenburg has made no secret about her intentions to obstruct the laws limiting public employee union power passed by the majority-Republican legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker. In my March 29 Examiner column, I warned that a Kloppenburg victory was possible and that there was reason to believe that the balance of enthusiasm, which has benefited Republicans since CNBC’s Rick Santelli called for a tea party in February 2009, has shifted in Wisconsin at least to the Democrats. Public employee union supporters have characterized members as “workers” and their opponents as “big business”—not at all an accurate representation of the current confrontation, but an attempt to invoke the romantic language of the union movement of the 1930s and 1940s. This was an enormous turnout, roughly twice the usual size in a Wisconsin election at this point in the election cycle, and the public employee unions’ turnout efforts seem to have been just ever so slightly more successful than those of tea partiers and other supporters of Walker’s policy. Some conservatives are minimizing this result as not so terrible. Hey, Prosser got 49.99% of the vote in a state that voted 56% for Barack Obama. But it could have severe policy impact in the Supreme Court, and the results suggest Democrats might have some chance of success in recalling the three Republican state senators they need to overturn the Republican majority (and to prevent recall of offsetting Democratic senators).
To analyze what happened in Wisconsin I divided the state into three parts and looked at their votes in this week’s state Supreme Court election, in the November 2010 election for governor and in the November 2008 election for president. In partisan terms, Wisconsin voted 49.99% Republican in 2011, 52% Republican in 2010 and 42% Republican in 2008. The three regions are metro Milwaukee (Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Washington and Waukesha Counties) which casts about one-third of the state’s votes), Dane County (Madison) which casts about one-tenth of the state’s votes and the rest of the state which casts between 55% and 60% of the state’s votes.
2011 Prosser Kloppenburg total
WISCONSIN 739,886 49.99 740,090 50.01 1,479,976
Milwaukee 260,024 57 198,692 43 458,716
Madison 48,627 27 133,513 73 182,140
Remainder 431,235 51 407,885 49 839,120
2010 Walker Barrett total
WISCONSIN 1,128,941 52 1,004,303 46 2,160,832
Milwaukee 378,134 54 321,458 46 704,440
Madison 68,238 31 149,699 68 220,273
Remainder 682,569 55 533,146 43 1,236,119
2008 McCain Obama total
WISCONSIN 1,262,393 42 1,627,211 56 2,983,417
Milwaukee 420,452 45 504,864 54 936,507
Madison 73,065 26 205,984 73 282,939
Remainder 768,876 44 966,363 55 1,763,971
Turnout is exceedingly important, indeed in this case apparently decisive, in offyear elections, and from these numbers several conclusions about turnout seem to follow. (1) Prosser actually got a higher percentage in metro Milwaukee than had Walker—and ran 12 points ahead of McCain. I suspect this reflects lower turnout among blacks, but it also shows a certain steadfastness among the mostly conservative suburbanites. (2) Turnout held up well, compared to either 2010 or 2008, in Dane County. Madison is dominated by state government and the University of Wisconsin; this is the one state capital, I think, where state government and the major state university comprise the lion’s share of the economy (Lansing has industrial employers, Columbus is a much larger and more diversified metro area, ditto Minneapolis-St. Paul). We saw the esprit of the college town types occupying the state Capitol and the same is reflected in the turnout and Democratic percentages there. (3) In the remainder of the state Republican Prosser lost significant ground, in vivid contrast to what happened in metro Milwaukee. I suspect this reflects organizational efforts by public employee unions, and in particular by teacher unions. There are teacher union members (unlike UAW members) in every county in Wisconsin; they have an above average capacity for political activity and the union seems to have mobilized them effectively.
Instinctively conservatives tend to think that their arguments will fail in large metro areas where mainstream media are the major source of information about government and public and that they will fare better in smaller communities where tea partiers and other volunteers find it easier to communicate with neighbors. The Wisconsin rerturns suggest that something like the opposite is true, at least in Wisconsin. The Walker message got through pretty well in the big city and its suburbs—and the Democrats’ message, if I’m right about black turnout, did not do much to move those who are portrayed as the prime beneficiaries of Democratic policies. But in the factory towns and county seats and rural communities in the rest of Wisconsin teacher union members seem to have had more effect on opinion than tea partiers.