Wisconsin Results Could Force Obama to Look Westward

Tom Barrett held Obama's base -- it just wasn't large enough, suggesting the president's path to victory may have to run through Colorado.


Scott Walker's solid victory in Tuesday night's Wisconsin recall election will likely increase the pressure on President Obama to maximize his progress on what could be called the "Colorado path" to 270 Electoral College votes.

From a national perspective, Wisconsin's most important message may be that Democrats continue to face enormous difficulty among blue-collar whites, but don't yet face fatal defection from the cornerstones of their modern coalition: minorities, young people and white-collar whites, especially women. Walker's survival adds more evidence that Obama and other Democrats face huge headwinds this November in states where those blue-collar whites dominate the electorate, as they do in Wisconsin. And that will increase the pressure on the president (and his party, in Congressional races) to maximize their gains this fall in states, like Colorado and Virginia, where an upscale-downscale coalition of white-collar whites and minorities can fashion a majority.

In Walker's 2010 victory, the Republican ran better among both non-college and college-educated whites than John McCain did against Obama in 2010. But the biggest shift away from the Democrats came among Wisconsin's blue collar whites. In 2008, Obama carried 52 percent of Wisconsin whites without a college degree, one of his best showings anywhere. But in 2010, Tom Barrett, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee who lost the rematch to Walker last night, drew just 40 percent of them. Walker won a commanding 58 percent of non-college whites, up substantially from McCain's 47 percent two years earlier.

Walker's surge was emblematic of the movement toward the GOP among working-class whites virtually everywhere in 2010: the GOP captured 63 percent of them in House races nationwide, according to the exit polls. On Tuesday, Walker suggested that red wave among blue-collar voters has not receded -- and may not yet even have crested. According to exit-poll results posted on CNN, Walker expanded his share of Wisconsin's non-college white vote to 61 percent and pushed down Barrett to 39 percent. Barrett drew a respectable 44 percent of non-college white women (compared to 55 percent for Walker), but faced a full-on stampede from working-class white men. A head turning 67 percent of white men without a college degree backed Walker; just 33 percent of them supported Barrett.

But Barrett had more success in holding other segments of the electorate recently more receptive to Democrats. According to the exit poll, he held a 52 percent majority of voters under 30 (though Walker carried a majority of young whites, his advantage with them was much smaller than his edge with older whites). Analysis by ABC's Gary Langer showed that Barrett also held 79 percent of all non-white voters (compared to just 20 percent for Walker). And Barrett split college whites almost evenly, winning 49 percent of them to 50 percent for Walker. The Democrat performed credibly among college-educated white men (at 43 percent to Walker's 56 percent) and maintained a solid advantage among college-educated white women (winning 55 percent to Walker's 45 percent.)

With one exception, Barrett's performance with each of those groups was similar to Obama's national showing among them in 2008. Obama that year won a cumulative 80 percent of non-white voters (compared to Barrett's 79), 42 percent of college-educated white men (compared to Barrett's 43), and 52 percent of college-educated white women (compared to Barrett's 55). The exception was whites under 30, who gave Obama a 54 percent majority of their 2008 votes, but tilted slightly toward Walker in Wisconsin last night.

In other words, what I've called the "coalition of the ascendant" that elected Obama in 2008 largely held together for Barrett in 2011. If non-college whites, college-educated whites, and minorities all voted the same way they did in Wisconsin Tuesday night, but were present in the proportions they are likely to constitute in the November election, Obama would win nationally by about the same margin he did last time.

Barrett's problem was that there are not enough of those voters to win in Wisconsin. Non-college whites cast a 54 percent majority of the votes in Wisconsin last night, virtually unchanged from their share in 2010 and 2008. College whites edged up to 37 percent last night (from 35 percent in the previous two contests) and minorities dipped to just nine percent.

In key metal-bending states across the Rust Belt, Obama could face the same numbers problem Barrett did. Walker's commanding showing among blue-collar whites reinforces the consistent evidence in polling that those voters appear poised to reject the president in overwhelming, perhaps unprecedented numbers. Just like Barrett, Obama this fall could find that even a strong performance with upscale whites and minorities probably won't save him if those blue-collar voters move against him decisively enough in states where they represent about half or more of the electorate, including not only Wisconsin, but also Ohio, Iowa, and Michigan (though the danger is mitigated there by the large number of blue-collar white union members). And all polls now suggest Obama is likely to face an even greater deficit with non-college whites nationally than Barrett did in Wisconsin (which is one reason the national race will be much closer than that hypothetical projection from Tuesday's Wisconsin result would indicate).

That risk increases the pressure on the president to win states shaped by the twin forces that he personally embodies -- growing diversity and rising education levels. That list revolves around generally sun-splashed states like Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and in a somewhat different way, Pennsylvania (where whites with college degrees outnumber those without them in the electorate). After Wisconsin, Obama may have no choice but to deepen his investment in a Sunbelt path to a second term.