Magazine | May 2, 2011, Issue

A Victory — and a Warning

Some worrisome trends are evident in Judge Prosser’s reelection

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.

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.

#page#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.

– Mr. Olsen is a vice president of the American Enterprise Institute and the director of its National Research Initiative.

Henry Olsen — Mr. Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an editor at UnHerd.com, and the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

Trial by Fire

The greatest advocate of book-burning in history was probably the skeptical philosopher David Hume. In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he wrote: “If we take in our hand any volume; ...
Politics & Policy

President Me

Here’s how to keep track of the top two contenders, according to a recent CNN poll, for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination: Only one of them has his own signature ...
Politics & Policy

A Victory — and a Warning

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 ...

Features

Politics & Policy

Blame the Not-Too-Rich

It is widely understood that the American middle class has fuzzy boundaries. Many relatively poor and relatively rich people identify as middle-class. In an ambitious 2008 survey, the Pew Research ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

A Just War

World War II has always been presented as “a good war” from the point of view of the Allies, who strove to destroy the undeniably great evil of Fascism, but ...
Politics & Policy

Eastern Light

I used to attend regularly at an office of the New York City government to transact some business with a very pleasant young female African-American city employee. On the wall ...
Politics & Policy

The People’s Military

Paradoxically, the post–Cold War “unipolar moment” of American power has also been a period of constant crisis in American civil-military relations. Even Operation Desert Storm, now romanticized as a golden ...
Politics & Policy

Shadow Fights

No temptation seems more irresistible to film critics than the pithy summation of a decade in movies. Ask a critic about a cinematic year and you’ll get a top-ten list. ...
City Desk

Cool Tombs

Buying a coffin is nobody’s idea of shopping, a friend of mine once said. I would certainly rather go to a yard sale or to Etro or even to the ...

Sections

The Long View

To: Archives, From: West Wing Staff

  TO: Archives FROM: West Wing Staff RE: Attached notes Please file these contemporaneous notes of the latest budget negotiations. Marked CLOSE HOLD. Thank you. Meeting begins. Present: POTUS, Speaker of the House, Mr. Plouffe, others. POTUS begins ...
The Bent Pin

The Late Liz, Upstaged

She Married the Men She Slept With, She Slept with the Men She Married, and All of Her Children Had Surnames . . .  As epitaphs for Elizabeth Taylor go, this captures the instinctive ...
Athwart

Dreams of My Carwash

In a recent issue of Vogue, actress Reese Witherspoon says she sits in her car and cries sometimes, because she misses her privacy. In a recent interview with Hearst Newspapers, ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

HE MAKES HIS MARK for Nathaniel Back when only holy men could write, The farmer or squire who signed himself With the letter X, St. Andrew’s cross, Would bow and put his lips to it, Reverently, ...
Happy Warrior

Line Items

‘It’s Back!”        So goes Walmart’s new slogan. What they mean is the old Walmart is back — “Everyday low prices!” — and their disastrous attempt to evolve into Goremart — ...
Politics & Policy

Letters

Rebutting Garfinkle The premise of Adam Garfinkle’s review of Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir Known and Unknown (April 4, 2011) is that Rumsfeld evades responsibility for large matters that did not go well ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ You know, we miss the days when he was anonymous, too. ‐ President Obama officially launched his reelection bid. He owed his win in 2008 to five factors. He was ...

Most Popular

Film & TV

Netflix Debuts Its Obama Manifesto

This week’s widespread media blitz heralding Netflix’s broadcast of its first Obama-endorsed presentation, American Factory, was more than synchronicity. It felt as though U.S. publicists and journalists collectively exhaled their relief at finally regaining the bully pulpit. Reviews of American Factory, a ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Capital versus Tucker Carlson

Advertisers do not advertise on Tucker Carlson’s show to endorse the views of Tucker Carlson. They advertise on his show for the same reason they advertise elsewhere: a captive audience — in Tucker’s case, the second-largest one in cable news — might spare thirty seconds of attention that will, they hope, ... Read More
Natural Law

Are Your Sexual Preferences Transphobic?

Last year, a study exploring “transgender exclusion from the world of dating” was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Of nearly 1,000 participants, the overwhelming majority, 87.5 percent, irrespective of their sexual preference, said they would not consider dating a trans person, ... Read More