Wisconsin is all noise: Obama will still win in November

The sitting Republican Governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker beat the Democratic challenger Tom Barrett 53% to 46% yesterday in a recall election. Many pundits had touted Wisconsin as a political bellweather— “as goes Wisconsin, so goes the nation in November and beyond”. A Walker victory would signal a resurgent Republican party with its revamped small government, collective-bargaining-busting mantra. In contrast, a Walker loss would be a strong ‘proof point’ that the Obama agenda is here to stay.

Well, Walker won in Wisconsin.

As a result, Doomsdayers and Cassandras are out in mass today predicting the imminent demise of Obama and Democrats. The arguments vary as to the real implications of the Wisconsin outcome, including: the power of money over grass roots mobilization; the declining influence of unions; a rejuvenated Republican machine that can marshal non-campaign resources for communications and advertising; a Wisconsin likely to go Republican in November; and a Democratic base disillusioned with the Obama agenda who are likely to stay at home.

However, all these arguments miss the fundamental point that most elections are really about voter desire for change (or continuity). If things are going well and people are feeling good, they probably will vote for the party-in-power. If not, it is more than likely that they will ‘throw the bums out’ and go with the challenger. Walker, in other words, won because voters were happy with the job he is doing; Obama will win Wisconsin in November because he, too, is well-thought of in the state.

Let’s explain my logic in more detail below.

First, as mentioned above, most elections can be reduced into a simple dichotomy: those where voters want change (change elections) and those where voters want continuity (continuity elections). Change elections typically favor the party-out-of-power, or challenger, while continuity elections favor the party-in-power. (As a caveat, about 20% of elections fall in middling category where the power of incumbency, marketing, and other ‘political variables’ are important.) ‘Desire for change’ can be measured in any number of ways; I typically use approval ratings.

Change Elections

In the specific case of Walker, with approval ratings in the low 50’s and high 40’s (ranging from 47 to 52), I would classify this as a weak continuity election, or put differently, one which favors the incumbent. Interestingly enough, Obama’s approval ratings are about at the same level as Walker’s.

Second, incumbency is king. Indeed, our own statistical modeling of approximately 200 elections around the world suggests that incumbents have a 3-fold advantage over non-incumbents¹. The political odds gods, in other words, were in Walker’s favor; they seem to be in Obama’s as well.

Third, if we combine Walker’s relatively strong approval ratings with the fact that he is an incumbent, our statistical modeling suggests that he had between an 86% and 95% percent chance of winning. Seems like a slam dunk for Walker, no?

Fourth, Obama, with approximately the same approval ratings in Wisconsin, has very similar odds of winning Wisconsin—between 85% and 93% to be precise. As I have explained in a previous blog piece, these relative odds very much mimic his chances of keeping the White House in November.

So what ultimately does this all mean?

First and foremost, the Walker victory in Wisconsin says very little about Obama’s relative odds for victory this year both in Wisconsin and nationally. In my view, he is the strong odds on favorite in both places.

Second, many criticized Obama and the DNC’s late and lukewarm support in Wisconsin, even attributing the loss to this. My take is a bit different: perhaps Obama is more adept at reading the political tea leaves than people give him credit. Indeed, why support a losing horse when you don’t need to?

Third, at a conceptual level, elections really are about voters’ relative desire for change: we shouldn’t forget that. And, as such, poll watchers’ analytical focus should be on these metrics and less on the surrounding noise. Walker had numbers to get him over the hump, and so does Obama.

Finally, we should better respect the sophistication of voters. Much like walking and chewing gum at the same time, Wisconsinites can positively evaluate both a Republican governor and a Democrat president. Some might chalk this up to Wisconsin being a moderate swing state.

I, however, think there is a more important underlying point: that voter calculus can be ‘situational’ rather than ‘categorical’. Indeed, contrary to the beltway consensus about the simplicity of people, the public can perfectly well live with complexity. Ultimately, Wisconsin shows us why we should be looking closer at metrics of voter optimism because, in them, we can best parse out such complexity.

¹ Young and Garman. 2010. “The unpredictability of pundits and predictable elections: Using public opinion to predict political disputes” 2010 Annual WAPOR Conference, Chicago, IL