Perhaps Wisconsin should be called The Purple Cheese State.
No, not because our dairy products are moldy. Rather, Badgerland has an impressive history of alternating between Democratic and Republican victories for state or federal office, belonging to the ground of “purple states.” Wikipedia defines the term as “a swing state where Democratic (blue) and Republican (red) candidates receive strong support without an overwhelming majority of support for either party.”
Steven Walters writing for Urban Milwaukee details how politically purple Wisconsin has been in the past few decades. Here are some highlights of his excellent piece, along with some of my clarifications and additions:
- A Pew Research poll found that voters in Wisconsin identified as 42% Republican/Lean Republican, No Lean/Independent 16% and 42% Democratic/Lean Democratic. It doesn’t get any more evenly divided than that!
- There have been 34 statewide elections since 1990. Democrats have won 18 and Republicans have won 16. Almost an even split.
- From 1951–1987, Democrats and Republicans held the governorship 18 years each. From 1987 to the present, Republicans have held the office for 24 years and the Democrats 12. However, Democratic incumbent Tony Evers leads his Republican challenger Tim Michels by a couple of points according to recent polling.
- Although Democratic candidates for president have won Wisconsin seven out of ten elections since 1992, four of their victories were by less than 1% of votes statewide.
- Wisconsin is only one of six states with a mixed Senate delegation, Democrat Tammy Baldwin and Republican Ron Johnson, who happen to be “along the ideological extremes” of both parties. We also had a mixed Senate delegation from 1981–1993.
- Both Democrat and Republican candidates have won state Supreme Court races in the past decade.
The available data backs up the notion that Wisconsin is purple, rather than blue or red. What could be the advantages or disadvantages of such an arrangement, which often leads to divided government?
Most of the data and speculation on this topic is directed at national politics, but there are some interesting tidbits specific to Wisconsin.
Economist William Niskanen had three arguments for divided government. His second is directly applicable to Wisconsin’s recent history: “The probability of a major reform will last is usually higher with a divided government, because the necessity of bipartisan support is more likely to protect the reform against a subsequent change in the majority party.”
Take Act 10, the Walker Administration’s 2011 effort to address budget shortfalls through focusing on public sector employee benefits. It’s an understatement to say that the legislation divided Wisconsin. In October 2018, Marquette University found that 42% of those polled wanted to repeal and 43% wanted to keep Act 10. Keeping the legislation has declined 7% from a high of 50, which might have been why Governor Tony Evers tried to ‘soften’ its effects in the 2021–2023 budget. His provisions were struck down by Senate Republicans. No doubt if elected to a second term, Governor Evers will try to ‘soften’ once again, especially if he gets a friendlier legislature.
Three of the last four times that state budget approvals were delayed, there was divided government, according to Wisconsin Policy Forum. Unfortunately, divided state government can lead to gamesmanship and gridlock, similar to the national level .
In 2021, ‘roughly 75%’ of bills passed by the Wisconsin Legislature were bipartisan, according to Wisconsin Public Radio. The two sides can work together, unlike what their rhetoric suggests.
Ultimately, I contend that the most desirable benefit of being a purple state is the fact that politicians have to earn their victory in many races. Power inherently corrupts, and coasting to victory, potentially with majorities in multiple branches of government, isn’t conducive to bipartisanship or responsiveness to the population as a whole, not just your voters. When independents make up a significant portion of the electorate, proposals and rhetoric tend to be milder, rather than radical garbage geared towards the fringes.
Furthermore, in a purple state, every vote does count. Can you believe that the winner of Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes was decided by less than 1% four separate times in the last three decades? While I don’t agree that a vote can be “meaningless” in areas that are dominated by a political party or movement, it’s much harder to argue against staying home when the state is so evenly divided.
At any rate, Wisconsin should have another tight election in November.
I have a feeling we’ll still be the Purple Cheese State.