Did Minority Voters Dethrone Scott Walker?

Early data suggest that enthusiasm and increased turnout from communities of color were at least part of the reason the GOP lost Wisconsin’s governor’s mansion.

President Trump appears with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker at a campaign rally in Wisconsin. (Mike Roemer / AP)

Scott Walker was elected governor of Wisconsin eight years ago. He’s survived a recall attempt, a reelection bid, a brief flirtation with running for the GOP nomination for president, and years of bitter opposition from Wisconsinites who fought against his hard-line policies on voting rights, health care, education, and the state safety net. He’s led what might be considered the model of a Republican state takeover in the era of Trumpism. And he lost the 2018 election to his Democratic challenger, Tony Evers, by a margin of 1.2 points, a total of just over 30,000 votes.

As the dust settles from the midterm elections and political observers attempt to divine exactly what happened across the country, that result is worth a closer look. In particular, the limited data available on the Wisconsin race suggest that increased turnout among black and Latino voters was one of the biggest shifts from the 2014 midterms to this election. If that indication holds true, it would mean that in a state characterized over the past decade by Walker’s racial politics, and in a country currently facing rising bigotry and voter suppression, minority voters were Scott Walker’s bane.

The early evidence indicates that in 2018, black and Latino voters in Wisconsin were extraordinarily active in the midterm elections. The CNN exit poll of the state gubernatorial race calculates that black voters composed about 9 percent of the electorate, and Latino voters about 4 percent. According to the Census Bureau, black people only make up about 6 percent of the voting-age population in the state, and Hispanic people about 5 percent—although Hispanics compose a smaller percentage of registered voters, about 4 percent. That means that proportionally, black voters significantly outperformed white voters, and Hispanic voters reversed long low-turnout trends. These numbers appear to show higher shares of minority voters than in previous midterms: A CNN exit poll from the 2014 gubernatorial election found that black and Latino voters made up 6 and 3 percent of the electorate, respectively.

To be sure, exit polls aren’t entirely reliable. The election data and preelection surveys that we do have complicate the story a bit. Wisconsin’s counties report different levels of data, and only Milwaukee provides a statistically useful data set broken down by discrete geographic areas, the city’s wards. The results of course don’t contain demographic information on individual voters, but one side effect of the city’s staggering level of racial segregation is that the wards themselves are reasonable proxies for racial groups. And according to John Johnson, a research fellow at the Marquette University Law School, both plurality-black and plurality-Hispanic wards did see turnout markedly increase. Of Milwaukee’s 327 wards, black people are the largest group in 148. Turnout in those wards increased from 64.5 percent in 2014 to 68 percent in 2018. But that actually didn’t keep pace with plurality-white wards, where turnout increased from 66.7 percent to 78.7 percent, meaning plurality-black wards might have actually made up a slightly lower percentage of the Democratic vote share than in 2014.

One particularly interesting aspect of the voter data is the strong increase in turnout and vote share among wards with large Hispanic populations. Turnout in those wards rose 14 percentage points from 2014 to 2018, going from 50 percent to 64 percent and making those wards almost identical to plurality-black wards in terms of turnout. Latino voters in Milwaukee are a much smaller population than black voters, but Johnson’s preliminary analysis found that the vote share of plurality-Hispanic wards in the overall results tripled from 0.2 percent to 0.6 percent, a substantial amount in a state where election margins are often narrow. And that’s as the candidate preference among voters in those plurality-Hispanic wards shifted strongly away from Walker and toward Evers.

These data aren’t complete either. Milwaukee’s wards are only a rough proxy for race across the state, and their usefulness could be limited by demographic shifts over the years, such as any displacement of black residents to the suburbs or internal population movements within the city. One major confounder is the fact that there are 25,000 fewer registered voters in the state than there were in 2014, a result of a widespread voter-purge program that opponents claim disproportionately disenfranchised black and Latino voters. In June, the Supreme Court gave its blessing to similar purges across the country, but the upshot for minority voters in Wisconsin is that they might have showed up to the polls in spite of increased barriers against doing so.

Further analysis from the Marquette Law School captures some of that enthusiasm. Using an aggregate of each election year’s polls, Charles Franklin, the director of the Marquette Law School Poll, calculated that 67 percent of all black respondents said they were certain they’d vote in 2018, with 29 percent indicating they were not likely to vote. That’s compared with 60 percent of black respondents who said they were certain to vote in 2014, and 39 percent who said they weren’t likely, Franklin explained in an email to me. Indeed, these results appear to be positive signs after troubling returns on black likelihood of voting from the 2012 and 2016 elections, in which the proportion of respondents who said they were certain to vote dropped five percentage points. It appears that at the very least, 2018 was a reversal of a mini-trend of disengagement among communities of color, and that result alone will have significant meaning in elections in the state.

Organizers and canvassers attest that voter enthusiasm was remarkable in communities of color, and that in those communities the election functioned as a rejection of Walker and his politics. According to Reyna Gengler, voters in northwestern Milwaukee started off tentative. She is a lead canvasser with the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization, a group of service and hospitality workers and Milwaukee Bucks stadium employees born out of the Fight for $15 national minimum-wage movement. “They were hesitant at first to even listen and get a conversation with me,” Gengler says of her initial canvassing, when she knocked on doors in June on behalf of the Democratic candidate Mahlon Mitchell, a prominent firefighter who lost to Evers in the Democratic primary. Early on, even politically engaged minority voters had been demoralized by Walker’s political resilience, especially after the 2014 recall attempt failed.

But even after Mitchell, a black candidate with deep connections to the urban black power base, lost, Gengler says black and Latino communities responded positively to the policy platform that grounded the anti-Walker movement—including proposals from Evers to implement a $15 minimum wage and to expand Medicaid. “I spoke to a woman; she was working at Popeyes and another restaurant,” Gengler told me by phone. “She was working two $7.25 jobs, and I said ‘Ma’am, do you realize if we win, you’ll only have to have one of those jobs and you’ll be able to spend more time with their children?’” Gengler says that woman immediately warmed to the campaign and pledged to get her siblings to vote for Evers, too. It didn’t hurt Evers that his running mate, Lieutenant Governor–elect Mandela Barnes, is a black Milwaukee native with deep activist roots.

For minority voters, Walker embodied the dysfunction and the racial disparities that have come to characterize Wisconsin’s government. During his first term, Walker appeared on a conservative talk-radio show with a host who’d called Latino voters “wetbacks.” He’s presided over an incredibly polarized government in which Milwaukee has become a hyper-segregated, racialized target of the rest of the state, which is overwhelmingly Republican. Opponents blame his policies for the fact that Milwaukee contains the zip code with the highest incarceration rate for black men in America. He’s refused to expand Medicaid, even as the state has become the worst in the nation for black-infant mortality. Under Walker’s tenure, Wisconsin has suffered one of the largest racial achievement gaps of any state. And perhaps above all, Walker has been the face of a conservative welfare-reform program that has utilized dog-whistle attacks to implement work requirements and drug tests and severely curtail public benefits.

According to Angela Lang, the executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, a Milwaukee organizing group that’s the scion of the progressive national organization CPD Action, dissatisfaction with Walker provided an opening, but one that still required plenty of work to exploit. “It meant prioritizing and centering black voices early on, in a way that really hasn’t been done before,” Lang told me. “It took a constant drumbeat. All the time, people are saying it is labor intensive, but it’s all about building relationships.” As has been a common theme in several other races centering on minority voters and low-propensity voters—from Stacey Abrams in Georgia to Andrew Gillum in Florida—the work of expanding the electorate and mobilizing people was an involved process that required time and resources, but one that seems to have paid real dividends nationally and locally.

“Once we started getting to early voting, you could just see people who had gotten their early votes in and then they were trying to get their family members,” Gengler tells me. The result appears to have been a surge in enthusiasm, turnout rates that kept pace with statewide results, and an electorate that looked almost like that of a presidential year. “It was so exciting to see the community go from ‘Get off my grass; get away from my door’ to being all-in,” Gengler said. Gengler, who is of a mixed-race background and identifies as part Latina, is married to a black man and lives in the black community in Milwaukee where she canvassed. She voted for the first time ever in this election.

What activists saw was a referendum on Walker and his policies. “Even for me, personally,” Lang says, “the idea of just getting rid of a governor that has not centered our community and has quite frankly ignored our community was powerful.” But the result also shows the value of interfacing and engaging with residents early and often about policy, and also the enduring value of helping voters of color navigate barriers and moving low-propensity voters into the “likely” column. There may be national implications to those lessons, but for now Evers and Barnes face a long-overdue reckoning with Wisconsin’s communities of color, who’ve now perhaps handed the two a mandate to govern in their interests.