With the race between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic challenger Mary Burke expected to come down to the wire, every vote will matter on Nov. 4 — but some votes might matter more than others.
Consider the past two weeks of the campaign.
With recent Marquette Law School polls showing Burke ahead among women, Walker launched multiple ads aimed at female voters, including an appeal from a domestic abuse survivor and Walker talking directly to the camera about his record on abortion.
Meanwhile, Burke held two rallies with first lady Michelle Obama in Milwaukee and Madison, firing up minority voters in the state’s largest city and college students attending the state’s largest university — both key constituencies for Democrats who tend to turn out in presidential elections, but not midterms like this year.
Women, particularly suburban mothers living near mid-size cities, and voters who typically skip the midterms are among several groups highlighted in State Journal interviews with more than a dozen political science professors and partisan consultants as key voters in the upcoming election. Those groups and others are key, first in terms of whether they vote and then for whom they vote.
Other voting groups that bear watching include those who voted for Walker in the 2012 recall and then President Barack Obama five months later; self-identified moderate independents; and young people, particularly those with at least some college education, but not yet homeowners with established careers and families.
The experts and consultants said turnout will be important as both sides try to get their core supporters to the polls.
“There’s almost no one who’s persuadable,” Republican strategist Mark Graul said. “Trying to find who’s persuadable is an exercise in futility.”
Democratic strategist Paul Maslin said Democrats will try to turn out minorities, young people and Milwaukee and Dane County residents, while Republicans will try to turn out evangelicals and suburban conservatives.
Maslin said if turnout matches the 2.1 million votes cast in 2010, when Walker was elected, the governor has an advantage. But if it approaches the 2.5 million votes cast in the recall, Burke has a better chance of winning. Graul said Walker’s chances diminish closer to the 3 million turnout mark of the 2012 presidential election.
“When turnout drops in Wisconsin, it’s no shock the electorate gets more Republican,” said GOP pollster Gene Ulm. “Republicans don’t win anything if (turnout among eligible voters) is over 58 percent.”
The turnout gap between voters who go to the polls only for presidential elections and those who also vote in gubernatorial elections illustrates why voters who skip the midterms are such a key group this year, especially for Democrats, who have won every presidential election in the state since 1984.
Republicans have won five of seven gubernatorial contests since then. The two years that Democrats won, 2002 and 2006, there was a Republican in the White House. Republicans tend to be more motivated when a Democrat is president and vice versa, Ulm said.
“People think it’s all persuasion and the fact is less and less of it is every year,” Ulm said. “It’s more turnout and mobilization, and anger drives it.”
Many fewer votes
Since 1984, there have been on average 900,000 fewer votes cast in gubernatorial elections than presidential elections.
In the four midterm elections when a Republican was president, Republican and Democratic candidates in Wisconsin gubernatorial elections received on average an identical drop of about 410,000 votes from their party’s candidate in the prior presidential election.
But in the three midterms when a Democrat was president, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate received 541,000 fewer votes than the prior Democratic presidential candidate, while the Republican gubernatorial candidate received 63,000 more votes than the prior Republican presidential candidate.
“The voter who typically votes for Democrats but tends to vote only when we have a presidential contest is going to make a difference,” UW-Madison political science professor Dennis Dresang said. “These voters are mostly from ethnic minorities, thus the Milwaukee area. They will be high school educated, relatively low income, not church-goers, and below the age of 60.”
Several political science professors said moderate independents are worth watching this election cycle.
“We know that party identifiers will support their party’s candidate and yet neither candidate gets over 50 percent in the recent polls with just this support,” said David Wegge, executive director of the Strategic Research Institute at St. Norbert College.
“This tells us that the other key factor will be the candidate who can capture more of the independents and/or the moderates in the electorate,” he said.
About 1 in 6 registered Wisconsin voters identify themselves both as independents and moderates, according to the past 25 Marquette Law School polls.
They are more likely to be male, younger, college educated and upper-income earners.
They’re also more likely than the general public to be undecided. Aggregated data from eight Marquette polls since last October show Burke has a 45-40 lead among this group, with 12 percent undecided.
Among all registered voters in the past eight polls, Walker leads 47-44 with 7 percent undecided.
The State Journal used aggregated poll data in order to create a large enough sample size among subgroups, but it doesn’t reflect the most up-to-date attitudes of voters.
In such a heavily partisan state, another group being closely watched are those who have crossed party lines between elections, particularly those who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, and Walker in 2010 and 2012.
Such voters make up roughly 9 percent of registered voters, according to Marquette poll director Charles Franklin.
The Marquette poll doesn’t ask about past voting behavior, so Franklin uses those who say they approve of the jobs both Obama and Walker are doing as a proxy for Obama/Walker voters.
Those respondents are evenly divided between men and women, skew younger and slightly more Hispanic than all respondents, and are more likely to have lower incomes and less education than the population as a whole.
They tend to identify as moderate Democrats, but also pay less attention to politics and say they are less likely to vote.
Though 57 percent of those Obama/Walker supporters have said they still plan to vote for Walker, more than a quarter have said they plan to vote for Burke. And more than 14 percent say they’re undecided, compared with 6 percent among other registered voters.
Female voters have received a lot of publicity, especially with Burke being the first woman to win a major party nomination for Wisconsin governor.
UW-Milwaukee political science professor Mordecai Lee said he’s interested in how suburban mothers in areas outside Madison and Milwaukee vote because they tend to be conservative on economic issues, but more liberal on social issues such as abortion.
“I think they’re torn,” Lee said. “Do they vote for conservative economics or social liberalism?”
The Marquette poll hasn’t consistently asked respondents about children or whether they live in a suburb or not. Instead, Franklin looked at married women between the ages of 30 and 55 living outside the Madison and Milwaukee areas (“out-state women of child-rearing age”). They make up 6.4 percent of registered voters.
They’re as likely as anyone to vote, and they split 46-46 between Burke and Walker.
The latest Marquette poll shows Burke has a double-digit lead among all women, while Walker has an even larger lead among men. But Franklin cautioned against reading too much into those figures.
After controlling the poll results for party identification and other demographics, he found that women are more likely to support Burke, but the correlation isn’t as strong as the raw polling data suggests. That’s because they are also more likely to be Democrats.
Polling data show young people are more likely to support Burke, but will they vote?
“It will be necessary for both candidates to get the largest turnout possible, and young people are notoriously among the least likely to vote,” said Kathy Cramer, a UW-Madison political science professor and expert on public opinion.
Franklin’s analysis of his polling data affirmed the older people get, the more likely they are to say they’ll certainly vote.
The group Franklin identified as “renters” — unmarried people between the ages of 25 and 35 with at least some college education — make up about 5.4 percent of poll respondents. They are far more likely to identify as liberal Democrats, and thus heavily favor Burke 55-29.
But asked if they’re likely to vote in November, 59 percent of renters say “absolutely.” Among everyone else, a group that backs Walker 48-43, that number jumps to 81 percent.