In the aftermath of last weeek's Supreme Court vote, observers differed as to whether it reflected a significant Walker backlash. My initial impression was that there is little evidence of that. Having looked closer at the numbers, I still think that's the case although, in the end, a final judgment may require numbers we don't have.
One line of argument is that Kloppenburg and Prosser should never have been close. But all that tells us is that the race was transformed into a partisan referendum. With or without an anti-Walker backlash, a partisan referendum will be close because Wisconsin is a sharply divided state. The fact of the matter is that neither candidate had any significant name recognition going in (very few people know who is on the state supreme court)and, once a judicial election becomes salient (i.e.. people start to pay attention), incumbency isn't the advantage that it might be in other types of races. Up until recently, of course, the races rarely became salient. This one became more salient than most.
One argument looks at differences from the February primary to the April general but that is not all that helpful. Turnout in April was wll over three times what it was in February. It was a completely different electorate in April, i.e.. different people were voting,and there is reason to think that the differences were not neutral between Prosser and Kloppenburg.
The nature of those differences was central to the fears of Prosser's supporters coming into last Tuesday. It looked like a perfect storm was aligned in Kloppenburg's favor. In a relatively low turnout election, you had a well organized special interest in an almost unprecedented state of excitement. That special interest is well known for its ability to run the ground game, i.e., get out the vote. (Conservative candidates in spring judicial elections, for example, hate running when there is a race for the Superintendent of Public Instruction.) If additional turnout was comprised disproportionately of members of public employee unions, the race could be flipped from Prosser to Kloppenburg even in the absence of a more general anti-Walker backlash.
To some extent, that is what happened. Dane County may have set a record for turnout in a spring judicial election. It turned out at approximately 82% of its November 2010 turnout and at almost three times the level for the Butler-Gableman race. It went 73% for Kloppenburg. Turnout was up in other counties as well and three counties with heavy student populations (Portage, Eau Claire and LaCrosse) were up as sharply as Dane. While Dane was around 10% of the vote in November, it was 12% in April. Had I known only this, I would have thought Prosser was dead.
What got in the way of the Kloppenburg win was that increased turnout in other counties, while not as strong as Dane, was not limited to disgruntled public employees. The collar counties around Milwaukee County did not come out like Dane - just around 67% of November's vote and a little over twice the numbers for Butler-Gableman - but they came out and went as heavily for Prosser as Dane went for Kloppenburg.
The other factor is that turnout in Milwaukee was up only as much as in the state generally. It was not whipped into the frenzy that gripped Dane and did not go as heavily for Kloppenburg (about 57% as opposed to 62% for Barrett) as one might have expected.
Without Dane, Prosser wins with 52.6% - closer than it might otherwise have been but hardly indicative of a statewide Walker backlash. Of course, one might just as easily back out the heavily Republican WWOzCo. When you do that and take out the populous and heavily Democratic Milwaukee, Prosser wins by around ten thousand votes.
One could say this is evidence of an anti-Walker move. If you back those five partisan counties out of the November vote, Walker still wins handily. So Kloppenburg did significantly better (a bit over five percentage points) in the remaining 67 counties.
The problem with such a conclusion is that, even though turnout in the Supreme Court race was heavy, it was still only about a third of the November turnout. It would be interesting to know how the composition of the electorate differed. If turnout was more heavily composed of union members and Democrats, the backlash story gets more complicated.
A counter-narrative is that conservatives took everything the left has to give and survived. The budget repair bill will become law and Prosser was reelected to the Court. The recalls may change that narrative but they may also confirm it.