Numbers advantage doesn't always equal wins for Wisconsin Democrats

Posted at 9:49 PM, Oct 18, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-18 23:27:01-04

Political pundits like to call Wisconsin a “purple” or “battleground” state, but Democratic candidates here have a distinct numerical advantage, according to data from the last four November elections.

That numerical advantage comes with a challenge, as Democratic-leaning voters are much more difficult to turn out on a regular basis.

Marquette University professor and election watcher Charles Franklin says 500,000 to 600,000 voters routinely fail to show up in non-presidential year elections. Those voters usually help Democrats win.

“All things equal, those additional voters lean more Democratic,” Franklin said. “Under certain circumstances, that helps Democrats considerably. Under different circumstances, not so much.”

To see that play out, look at the 2008 and 2010 general elections.

In 2010, Democrat Tom Barrett got 682,000 fewer votes than Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race. Republican Scott Walker was down 145,000 from John McCain in 2008.

Enough Democratic-leaning voters stayed home to tip the state from one party to the other in two years.

Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki admits this is his party’s burden.

“It's always a challenge. Listen, some of it is organic. Presidential elections tend to dominate our lives in ways that senate elections or gubernatorial elections don't,” Zepecki said.

The same thing happened in the 2012 and 2014 races, where 498,000 people who voted for President Obama’s re-election did not come out to cast a ballot for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke.

“It’s just a matter of turning them out to vote,” Zepecki said.

So how does the state GOP overcome the tendency for turnout to swing to the Democrats in this presidential election year?

A party spokesperson said it’s a two-pronged battle.

“It’s about winning over persuadable voters while also turning out the Republican base,” the spokesperson said.

Professor Charles Franklin agrees with that strategy, as the GOP base is more consistently reliable to turn out on every election day.

Republican voters tend to be older and better educated, Franklin said. Factors that make them more likely to cast a ballot.

“Those demographics work to advantage Republicans to have relatively high turnout in midterm and presidential years,” he said.