A Victory and a Warning

National Review | Published on

By Henry Olsen

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Conservatives are right to cheer Wisconsin supreme-court justice David Prosser’s apparent reelection, but it’s worth looking closely at the results. While his victory was encouraging, Prosser won only because turnout among Milwaukee’s black voters was significantly lower than the statewide average, and because his percent of the minority vote was nearly three times as high as Gov. Scott Walker’s was in 2010. Two other 2010 GOP advantages–higher-than-normal GOP turnout and strong support from white working-class Democrats–were absent. These facts should concern conservatives who think the public is already prepared to embrace wide-scale entitlement reform.

Normally, results in Wisconsin judicial races do not closely follow partisan voting patterns, but this one did. According to Bert Kritzer, a University of Minnesota law professor, there was a 90 percent correlation between a county’s voting results for governor in 2010 and its results from last week, the highest correlation in Wisconsin history. Conservatives and liberals are doing battle nationally over whether entitlement programs should be reformed to reduce the federal debt, and Prosser and Kloppenburg were the vehicles by which those groups could register their opinions on the same question at the state level.

In a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute, New Jersey governor Chris Christie said that public-employee pay and benefits are to states what entitlements are to the federal government. Since collective bargaining is what enables public-employee unions to obtain their generous compensation packages and pensions, collective bargaining is essentially a state-level version of an entitlement.

In selling his plan, Walker argued that Wisconsin’s deficit crisis was too large to ignore and could be faced only by cutting spending. He pointed out that collective bargaining was the biggest driver of spending, and that public-sector workers would still retain significant protection. His spending reforms, he asserted, would boost economic growth and bring jobs to Wisconsinites. The good news for conservatives is that the voters didn’t flinch when asked to endorse this version of entitlement reform. Throughout the state, most voters who backed Walker in November backed Prosser in April, and they turned out in large enough numbers to carry the day.

Milwaukee’s minority populations turned out in significantly lower numbers and gave Prosser a significantly higher percentage of the vote than would normally be the case in a partisan election.

The vote was especially encouraging in the state’s Republican heartland. The suburban Milwaukee counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington regularly deliver 65 to 70 percent of their votes to competitive GOP candidates. They gave nearly 74 percent of their vote to Prosser. Staunch GOP counties to the north of Milwaukee, up the shore of Lake Michigan, and in the Green Bay region also gave Prosser higher percentages than they gave Walker.

Yet one reason the election was so close was that turnout in most staunchly Democratic counties was higher (relative to historic levels) than that in Republican counties. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Craig Gilbert notes that in 2010, the reverse was true: Turnout in GOP counties was higher than normal, while that in Democratic counties was lower than normal, chiefly because Republicans were enthusiastic about voting, while Democrats were not, and the Republicans attracted most independent voters.

Statewide turnout in the judicial race was 32 percent lower than in 2010, but the decline was not uniform: In most Republican counties, the decline was a couple of percentage points more than that, while in staunch Democratic counties, it was a few points less. For instance, liberal Dane County, home to the state capital (Madison) and the University of Wisconsin, saw only an 18 percent drop, and surrounding counties, where many government and university employees live, also saw lower-than-average drops, ranging from 19 to 29 percent.

These figures suggest that the fight over collective-bargaining repeal energized liberal voters but did not excite the marginal voters who turned out in force for Republicans in 2010. This indicates that the GOP’s 2010 turnout advantage, which may have added a couple of points to its nationwide margin, will likely not persist if liberal Democrats believe entitlements are seriously endangered.

The decline in conservative support in the west and center of the state is more ominous. This area of Wisconsin, along with the southern county of Kenosha, has traditionally been a bastion of white working-class Democrats. In 2010, such Democrats nationwide shifted dramatically toward the Republicans. This happened in Wisconsin, too. Fourteen of the 27 counties that voted for John Kerry in the very close 2004 election voted for Scott Walker in 2010. If one removes four liberal or minority-dominated Democratic counties from this list, 14 of the 23 white working-class Democratic counties switched sides.

Last week, 11 of these 14 counties switched back. Furthermore, virtually every other county in this area voted significantly less strongly for Prosser than it did for Walker, suggesting that the white working-class Democrats in those counties reverted to their normal voting patterns.

As I wrote in National Review last year (“Blue Collars, Red Voters,” November 29), white working-class voters, particularly in the North and Midwest, are the primary group that switches parties in Republican wave years. While they oppose progressive liberalism, they are motivated as much by their fear of economic loss as by their hope of economic gain. This makes them particularly sensitive to policies that seem to threaten the lifetime stability that they believe entitlements like Social Security and Medicare provide. If their reaction in the supreme-court race is any indication of how they will view proposals to reform federal entitlements, conservative Republicans will have a much harder time winning in 2012.

It would be unwise to dismiss these data simply because Prosser won. Prosser was able to overcome adverse trends only because of unusual returns from minority-dominated Milwaukee precincts that are unlikely to be replicated in a presidential year. Milwaukee’s minority populations turned out in significantly lower numbers and gave Prosser a significantly higher percentage of the vote than would normally be the case in a partisan election. In the core African-American-dominated precincts, turnout was down 43 percent from 2010, compared with a 32 percent drop statewide. Scott Walker received only 4.2 percent of the vote there in 2010, but David Prosser received 17 percent in 2011.

Other minority-dominated precincts behaved similarly. In those, turnout was down by 40.6 percent, and Prosser received 22.9 percent versus Walker’s 13.3 percent. Had turnout in these black and minority-dominated precincts been equal to the statewide average, and had Prosser done only as well as Walker, Kloppenburg would have increased her lead there by over 19,000 votes, more than enough to erase Prosser’s current 7,700-vote lead.

Barack Obama’s presence at the top of the ticket should ensure that blacks turn out at a much higher rate in 2012. Republican candidates are also unlikely to receive levels of support anywhere close to those Prosser obtained. The supreme-court race was nonpartisan; neither candidate was identified on the ballot as belonging to one party or the other. In 2012 the ballot will clearly label which candidates are Democrats and which are Republicans. The Wisconsin data suggest that black voters who turn out only in years with high-profile races are strongly partisan people who primarily vote the party line.

Wisconsin’s results do not mean conservatives should abandon entitlement reform, but they should expect an energized Democratic base that will fight with all its might. They will need to talk persuasively about what entitlement reform means. It is not simply a way to reduce the debt and grow the economy; they should stress that it is absolutely necessary to preserve the lifetime security that entitlements provide.

For decades, conservatives have been wrongly tagged as caring only about the rich. The fight over entitlement reform and our nation’s fiscal future requires us to confront and defeat this bogeyman once and for all. Wisconsin’s results suggest a way to do that, and also show us what could happen if we fail.

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.