Scott Walker has won every round of his long fight with Big Labor in Wisconsin, but it wasn’t until November 4 that he delivered the knockout punch. In his third gubernatorial election in four years, Walker defeated Democratic challenger Mary Burke by 6 points. It was the same margin of victory he had in the 2010 Republican wave and just a point shy of his 2012 performance in a union-funded recall.
Walker’s victory has secured the conservative reforms he implemented in his first term and will encourage other governors to follow his lead. It should also make him a serious contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination if he wants it—which seems likely.
Some of Walker’s opponents have tried to console themselves with the belief that he triumphed simply because Republicans win low-turnout midterm elections, while Democrats win high-turnout presidential elections. “President Obama went into Milwaukee” and “did all he could do,” a distraught MSNBC host Ed Schultz said on election night. “He went to the base. This was a base election. He just apparently didn’t get out enough people.”
But in reality, the election didn’t come down to turnout. Walker could have survived 100 percent turnout in the liberal bastions of Milwaukee County and Dane County (which includes Madison, the capital and home to the state’s flagship university). Burke could have netted the same number of votes in Milwaukee and Dane counties as President Obama, but if everything else had stayed the same, Walker still would have won.
Walker’s victory was broad-based. Independents backed him by 10 points, and the racial composition of 2014 voters (88 percent white and 6 percent black) wasn’t that different from the electorate that showed up for the 2012 presidential contest (86 percent white, 7 percent black), when Obama won the state by 7 points.
The key to Walker’s success was his performance among middle- and lower-income voters. Walker won those earning more than $100,000 by 20 points, just as Mitt Romney had in 2012. But he won voters earning between $50,000 and $100,000 by 17 points; Romney only won them by 1. Those earning less than $50,000 Walker lost by 9 points—whereas Romney lost them by 25. As reporter Molly Ball pointed out in the Atlantic earlier this year about that last group, “whether Democrats win these voters by a 10-point or a 20-point margin tells you who won every national election for the past decade.”
Walker won over more of the middle- and working-class for one reason more than any other: His decision to balance the state’s budget by curtailing collective bargaining ultimately proved successful and popular. But it was far from clear that this would be the case when he took on the unions soon after he entered the governor’s mansion.
In March 2011, while thousands of protesters occupied the state capitol and Democratic legislators hid in Illinois to prevent a vote on Walker’s collective bargaining bill, unions successfully portrayed Walker as an enemy of teachers and public education. A Rasmussen poll found that 56 percent of Wisconsin voters sided with the unions and 41 percent with Walker. That May, after Republicans found a way to push the bill through the legislature without Democratic assistance, a survey by Public Policy Polling showed that Walker would lose a recall election, if held, by 7 points.
But by the time the recall took place in 2012, stories of Walker’s reforms helping schools and lowering property taxes proliferated in the press. Walker’s Democratic opponent, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, couldn’t name a single school that had been hurt by the law. In 2014, Mary Burke intentionally avoided discussing Walker’s reforms. A Marquette poll taken just before the election found voters supported Walker on collective bargaining by a 10-point margin (52 to 42 percent). It’s little wonder Burke relentlessly talked about jobs and the economy instead. But that didn’t work either.