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Second-Choice Republican

Sep. 21, 2010
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An interesting and little-noted view of last Tuesday’s primary election results for governor was contained in a county-by-county map created by Craig Gilbert, Washington bureau chief of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

In the Republican matchup between Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and former Congressman Mark Neumann, the map shows Neumann winning 60% of the counties (42 to 29, with incomplete results from Menominee County).

Visually, a huge swath across most of the state went for Neumann, with Walker’s support concentrated in the lower southeast corner of the state, where he is best known, and, curiously, three counties on the far northwestern tip.

Yet, Walker defeated Neumann by a 20-point margin, 59% to 39%. Clearly, some parts of the state count more than others.

That’s because they contain a lot more voters. Walker’s vote over Neumann in the southeastern Wisconsin counties of Milwaukee, Waukesha, Washington, Ozaukee and Racine accounted for his entire winning margin of about 122,000 votes.

For anyone curious about the effect of both parties nominating Milwaukee candidates for governor—Walker for the Republicans and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett for the Democrats—it sure looks like the entire election could be decided by a small number of urban and suburban counties, with the rest of the state on the sidelines.

It’s always dangerous attempting to translate primary results in one party to the general election. Although a state election official predicted a near record primary vote of 28%, the turnout actually was only about 19% of eligible voters.


A GOP Enthusiasm Gap?

Some Democrats anguished because far more Republicans voted, but there were no primary challenges for major offices to draw Democrats to the polls.

The lower-than-expected turnout probably was more worrisome for Republicans, suggesting media claims about giddy Republican enthusiasm are grossly overblown. Only about 14% of the voting population voted in the Republican primary.

A normal November turnout of 50% to 60% of eligible voters could vote very differently. In other Republican primaries, we’ve already seen extreme right-wing tea party voters distorting results by nominating goofy candidates railing against masturbation or longing to repeal Social Security.

Neumann’s attempt to hop the tea party express by branding Walker as one of those hated “career politicians” didn’t work. But what should we make of Republicans in a substantial majority of counties around the state voting against Walker?

Since both Neumann and Walker are conservatives, do those votes now automatically go to Walker? Or is there a possibility those were protest votes against establishment politicians or even anti-Milwaukee votes?

If either of the latter two possibilities proves to be true, then Republicans could have an enthusiasm gap of their own.

But will that really matter if the final election, like the primary, is decided in the most populous counties of the state? Certainly, a big-city mayor might have a better chance of getting elected governor if the election is fought in a handful of urban counties.

On the other hand, Barrett probably muddled the margin a Democratic candidate ordinarily would expect to take out of Milwaukee County, the most vote-rich urban area of the state, with his unsuccessful attempt to take over Milwaukee Public Schools.

That ill-timed, ill-fated effort came when the Milwaukee School Board was finally united behind Michael Bonds, an African-American professor in the UW-Milwaukee School of Education. The board was in the process of recruiting Gregory Thornton, a highly qualified African-American urban educator, as superintendent.

Many in Milwaukee’s black community resented what they saw as a power grab by white politicians at a time when well-qualified African Americans were finally getting an opportunity to address the shortcomings of MPS for black children.

As a result, some of the community activists who worked hardest to get out the black vote for Democrats in the past are taking a pass on this election even though Walker is no friend of communities in need.

The bizarre Milwaukee vs. Milwaukee matchup for governor puts media pre-election analysis in uncharted territory. The clichés of the past about the urban Democratic vote vs. Republicans outstate won’t apply.

The political trend that transformed Wisconsin in recent presidential elections from a battleground state to a solid Democratic state has been the growing Democratic vote in suburbs and small towns.

In 2008, President Obama got 56% of the vote, winning 59 of 72 counties, including rural and suburban counties as well as urban areas.

Republicans and their media cheerleaders say Obama was an extraordinary candidate in an extraordinary year. They claim Republicans have excitement on their side this year.

But they have to try to generate that excitement with a gubernatorial candidate who was the second choice of Republicans across most of the state. 


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