Huge victory margin for Barrett; massive GOP turnout for Walker
By Craig Gilbert of the Journal Sentinel
An election day largely bereft of real suspense managed to produce at least two eye-popping numbers Tuesday:
Tom Barrett’s massive statewide victory margin over Kathleen Falk in a Democratic Primary that was far more of a rout – and much less of a brawl – than once expected, punctuated by Barrett’s 31-point margin over Falk in Dane County, where she was county executive for 14 years.
The astonishing number of votes Gov. Scott Walker generated in an uncompetitive GOP primary, more votes than Barrett and Falk combined and almost as many as were cast for all the candidates on the Democratic side. It’s just not normal in politics for a major incumbent with token opposition to generate turnout on a par with a heavily contested race in the other party. It was an unexpected turnout bomb, a demonstration of Walker’s greatest political asset, even greater than his considerable money advantage -- the ability to mobilize his base.
Put it all together and Tuesday’s vote was a momentum boost to both candidates in a four-week drag-race of an election.
Barrett won 56 out of 72 counties, utterly dominating in the two big base counties of Milwaukee (where he beat Falk 72% to 25%) and Dane (where he won 61% to 31%). His biggest margins were in the northwest and the southeast, and he topped 60% in 11 counties.
While Barrett’s opposition among labor spent heavily to elect Falk, it critically backed off from frontal attacks once Barrett jumped into the race, began piling up party endorsements, cemented his lead in the polls and won a war of perception over which Democrat had the best shot of beating Walker.
That not only eased Barrett’s path to victory Tuesday but averted the destructive intra-party fight many Democrats feared. He emerged a fairly unscarred and unexpectedly resounding primary winner. It couldn’t have played out any better for him, other than the extremely sobering reminder Tuesday that Republicans are at least as dedicated to keeping Walker in power as Democrats are to driving him out.
It was as if Walker turned on a turnout switch on the eve of the primary, appearing on talk radio and on the stump to urge GOP voters looking ahead to June 5 to first deliver a show of strength for him on May 8.
Walker’s vote total was only 20% lower than the combined votes of his party’s presidential field in the April 3 Wisconsin Primary; and he drew 280,000 more votes than the GOP winner in that contest, Mitt Romney.
In the GOP bastion of Waukesha County, the Walker vote represented about 27% of all voting-age adults in the county (79,049 people).
In the Democratic bastion of Dane County, the Democratic vote represented about 28% of all voting-age adults in the county (105,437).
In effect, Republican Waukesha matched Democratic Dane’s turnout rate despite the fact that the GOP primary was meaningless.
In terms of total turnout (Republican and Democratic primaries combined) Ozaukee was number one in the state Tuesday, with 39.4% of voting-age adults going to the polls (based on 2010 population), followed by Waukesha at 38.8%. (Dane was seventh at 36.3%).
The Walker turnout phenomenon in the juggernaut GOP “WOW” counties (Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington) is to many Democrats the single most daunting obstacle to defeating the incumbent governor.
“That group is extremely mobilized,” Robert Kraig of the liberal advocacy group, Citizen Action of Wisconsin, said in interview hours before the polls closed Tuesday. “They’re every bit as passionate as Walker opponents. It’s overwhelming (in those suburban counties) … It means that we need top mobilization just to match it … We need to perform at a top level across every constituency, because they’re going to.”
That’s why the size of the vote in Milwaukee June 5 is a major question for Democrats. Of the party’s two geographic bases, Madison is reliably high-turnout and unmistakably and deeply engaged in the recall fight. The city of Milwaukee is not reliably high-turnout and it remains to be seen how deeply engaged its voters are in the recall fight. Milwaukee Mayor Barrett enjoyed his biggest countywide margins in Milwaukee County Tuesday. But the county’s turnout rate was much lower than Dane’s: 17% of voting-age adults, or 123,638 people, voted in the Democratic primary. The turnout gap between Dane and Milwaukee is nothing new. But it will be vital for Democrats to narrow that gap and drive up Milwaukee turnout June 5 in order to offset the huge turnout Walker is expected to generate in the suburban counties outside Milwaukee.
There's also the broader question: is the sum total of roughly 670,000 votes generated by Democrats Tuesday a warning sign about the party's turnout June 5, when they will need far more than that number to defeat Walker?
“The Democrats should worry about turnout in June. They should put the GOTV machine into full gear,” said political scientist Barry Burden of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The counter-argument is that Walker is the motivating force for Democrats as much as he is for Republicans, and that voting against him next month will be far more mobilizing for them than Tuesday’s primary was.
Either way, it’s a turnout game. Both sides have now shown in very concrete ways they are highly motivated. But it’s probably fair to say that between now and June 5, the bigger turnout questions are on the Democratic side.