Rural, Exurban Votes Carry Wisconsin

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker lost the vote in the cities. He easily won his recall election Tuesday because of votes coming out of rural and exurban counties.

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Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, defeated Democrat Tom Barrett in yesterday’s recall election in Wisconsin because of a strong vote in rural and exurban counties.

Walker, the incumbent, lost the vote in urban counties by nearly 30,000 votes. But he won exurban counties by a margin of 116,000 votes and rural Wisconsin counties by over 86,000 to wipe out his urban deficit and easily retain his office.

The chart above shows the percentages each candidate received in rural, exurban and urban counties. Exurban counties are located in metropolitan regions, but are largely rural in character. Half of those residing in exurban counties live in rural settings.

Wisconsin has been a state in controversy for more than a year. Gov. Walker supported laws that severely cut the power of public sector unions to engage in collective bargaining. In February 2011, teachers, union members and students staged sit-ins at the state capitol rotunda to protest Walker and his policies.

Walker’s opponents eventually gathered enough signatures on a petition to force a recall election, which was held Tuesday.

The election battle was extremely hard fought — and the state was intensely divided. 

One of those divisions was between rural, exurban and urban voters, as the chart above shows. (See the next page for county totals.)

The rural/urban divisions were far greater in this election than in the 2008 presidential contest, which Barack Obama won with over 55 percent of the vote. In that contest, Obama won the rural vote over Republican John McCain by nearly 10 percentage points, 53.2 percent to 43.5 percent.

The election Tuesday was a dramatic flip-flop from 2008. Barrett, the Democratic mayor of Milwaukee, did worse than Obama across the board. His share of the rural Wisconsin vote was 12.6 percentage points below what Obama won in 2008. In exurban counties, the Democrat fell 11.2 points below Obama’s percentage; his outcome was 7.2 points under Obama’s percentage in urban counties.

Democrats simply did not get out the vote. Barrett’s total vote was nearly 520,000 ballots below Obama’s totals in 2008. In rural and exurban counties, Barrett’s vote totals fell more than 235,000 ballots behind Obama’s vote in 2008.

Gov. Walker won 69,000 more votes than did John McCain in 2008 — and 46,000 of that increase came from rural and exurban counties.

Walker won because Democratic votes were down across the state and because he increased the vote in rural and exurban counties.

Another striking aspect of the Wisconsin vote was the extent to which voters lived in counties where the election was a landslide for either Barrett or Walker.

In Tuesday’s election, over two-thirds of voters (69.6 percent) lived in a county where the election was decided by 20 percentage points or more. The election was decided by 7 percentage points statewide, but two-thirds of Wisconsin voters lived in a county where the contest was won in a landslide of more than 20 points. 

Simply, most Wisconsin voters lived in communities where there was an overwhelming majority favoring either Barrett or Walker.

In 2008, the state was less geographically divided. In that election, just over half of all voters (51.9 percent) lived in a county where either McCain or Obama won by 20 percentage points or more.

Here is a county-by-county breakdown of the vote in Wisconsin, showing the county, the county seat, whether the county is rural, exurban or urban; the percent of the vote won in 2008 by Barack Obama; and the vote Tuesday, including the percentage won by Democrat Barrett.

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