Here’s What We Don’t Know About Election Day

By now, we’ve seen the ads.  We’ve heard the talking points. We have at least some idea of which policy positions Scott Walker and Mary Burke favor or oppose.  But with only hours remaining before the votes are counted, there is still plenty we don’t know about the 2014 gubernatorial election in Wisconsin.

Some of it has been hashed over pretty thoroughly.  Turnout, for instance.  Simply put, the Burke campaign needs less-likely Democratic voters to go to the polls in numbers that more closely resemble a presidential election, or at the very least, the 2012 recall election for governor.  Three million people in Wisconsin voted in the November 2012 presidential contest.  Two-point-five million voted in the June recall election.  If turnout looks more like the governor’s race of 2010, when 2.1 million people went to the polls, the Burke campaign will face enormous odds, given historically strong turnout by Republican voters in the state.  But turnout is hardly the only “great unknown” Tuesday.  Here are a handful of others to consider.

1) Do Democrats return to the fold?  Exit polling data from the June 2012 recall election suggests a number of Democrats voted for Governor Walker because they didn’t agree with the recall. Even AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told me recently that some of his members supported Walker in 2012 because of their discomfort with the recall.  And Trumka is hardly a fan of the governor.  Walker acknowledges that those voters exist.  The question is will they stick with him in this election, or return to their Democratic-voting ways. 

2) How will Republicans and Democrats fare out-state?  Much of the focus in this election or any election for that matter, is on turnout in Dane, Milwaukee, and the WOW counties—Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington.  But keep an eye to the north and west.  For example, a top Republican operative calls the Green Bay market the Walker campaign’s “holy grail.”  The governor has had particularly strong showings in northeast Wisconsin in his prior two elections.  Democrats say they need to hold down Walker margins in that part of the state and in central Wisconsin, but aren’t being helped by less-than-competitive congressional races in those areas.

3) What impact will the gender gap have?  Polls show Walker fares better with men.  Burke does better with women.  But the size of the gender gap will be key to each candidate’s fortunes.  In November of 2012, the Democratic candidate, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, was able to defeat former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson by winning women voters by a significant margin, and by keeping it close with male voters.

4) Will secondary issues matter?  This has been an election about jobs and the performance of the Wisconsin economy.  But at the beginning of the campaign, Democrats said they were not only looking to boost turnout, but were hoping to peel away two percent of female GOP voters, who may have reservations about the governor’s education policies or new GOP-backed abortion laws in the state.

5) What about those “other” questions on the ballot? In some communities in Wisconsin, you’ll need to plan on spending extra time in the voting booth. That’s because non-binding referenda questions have been added to a number of county and city ballots.  Twelve municipalities will weigh in on whether to raise the minimum wage.  Twenty will vote on whether to accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid. And six municipalities will consider measures related to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. Republicans say the additional items are a waste of money and a cynical effort by Democrats to boost turnout.  Supporters of the non-binding referenda say they serve an important purpose, letting people voice their opinion on major policy issues and even influencing elected officials. What we don’t know is whether these ballot measures will actually motivate potential voters to go to the polls.

6) Is President Obama on the ballot in Wisconsin?  Obviously, there is no presidential contest this year.  There’s not even a U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin.  But the governor and his supporters are attempting to nationalize the election by linking Mary Burke to the president.  The latest Marquette Law School Poll shows why.  Obama’s job approval rating in Wisconsin is now decidedly negative, the lowest in the poll’s history.  Burke has apparently decided the president is a risk/reward proposition, the risk of appearing with Obama offset by the potential reward of increased turnout.  It’s doubtful that Obama will decide the governor’s race in Wisconsin, but it’s safe to say that a more popular president would have made Burke’s job just a little bit easier.

Of course, after Election Day, the questions keep right on coming.  If Governor Walker is re-elected, will he run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016?  If Mary Burke is elected, where will she find common ground with Republicans, who are likely to be more conservative and in control of both houses of the legislature?  But those are unknowns for another day. Wednesday, at least.

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