Michael Barone's re-weighted Wisconsin results: Obama 48, Romney 48

O’s showing against Romney in the exits was the one tiny bit of hope that MSNBC clung to late last night, to the point where Lawrence O’Donnell said, with a straight face, that the big winner in Wisconsin had been … Obama.

Here’s Michael Barone stealing the last little bit of their candy:

The Wisconsin exit poll evidently reported the race for governor in the recall ballot as 50%-50%. With 92% of the vote in, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s excellent website reports the score as 54%-46% Walker. Let’s say that’s the final results: only 13% of precincts from Milwaukee County and 3% of precincts from Madison’s Dane County — the Democrats’ two reservoirs of big majorities — remain uncounted. It has been emblazoned on mainstream media that the exit poll also showed Barack Obama leading Mitt Romney in the state 51%-45%. But if you think the exit poll was 4% too Democratic — and that’s in line with exit poll discrepancies with actual vote results over the last decade, as documented by the exit poll pioneer, the late Warren Mitofsky* — that result looks more like 49%-47% Romney. Or assume the remaining Milwaukee County precincts whittle Republican Governor Scott Walker’s margin over Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to 53%-47%, which looks likely, the Obama-Romney numbers would look like 48%-48%.

This is in a state that Obama carried 56%-42% in 2008. But those putative numbers also look very much like the numbers in 2000, when Al Gore carried Wisconsin 47.8%-47.6% over George W. Bush, or the numbers in 2004, when John Kerry carried Wisconsin 49.7%-49.3% over Bush.

Walker ended up winning by slightly less than seven points, which, per Barone’s logic, should mean that Romney actually has a very narrow lead over Obama. Two problems with that, though. First, there were several iterations of exit poll results last night as results came in and, if memory serves, the 51/45 spread for Obama that Barone mentions was only the first of them. The next wave showed Obama’s lead ballooning to 12 points(!) even while it also showed Walker inching out to a four-point lead over Barrett. I lost track of how the exits moved after that (as did lefty Michael Tomasky, who’s otherwise in full “great news for Obama!” spin mode), but ABC seems to have settled on a seven-point Obama lead. If that’s true, then Barone’s “adjustment” analysis would place Obama and Romney in a dead heat. But that leads us to the second complication: He seems to be assuming that there are no crossover voters who prefer both Walker and Obama. I.e., he’s arguing that if the initial Walker/Barrett exit had it 50/50 and Walker ended up winning by seven, you should assume that the same number of voters were erroneously attributed to Obama in the exits when they should have gone to Romney. Is that really safe to assume? Remember, according to the exit poll, fully 60 percent said that governors should be recalled from office only when they’re guilty of misconduct. Could be that there’s some small but significant critical mass of centrist Dems who were queasy about yanking Walker in the middle of this term given the tit-for-tat recall precedent that might set but are prepared to pull the lever for O in November. On the other hand, if Michael Barone tells you one thing and an idiot like me tells you something different, Barone’s conclusion is a safe bet to be more accurate. So he may be right — given the exit polls and final results last night, Wisconsin’s a toss-up.

Then there’s the question of whether the Obama/Romney exit results can be trusted at all. Jay Cost explains:

Here is the question the exit pollsters ask:

If the presidential election were held today, for whom would you vote?

A. Barack Obama, 51 percent.
B. Mitt Romney, 44 percent.
C. Would Not Vote, 3 percent.

What is missing from this is the “undecided” category. It’s not even an option, which to my mind really undercuts the utility of this question. To what extent are Obama and Romney “supporters” just being pushed there because they have no undecided option? Could be a lot. Who knows?

Every “undecided” vote at this point is good news for Mitt because it’s a vote that the incumbent has failed to lock up after three years in office. In which case, yeah, Barone’s conclusion makes more sense. Even if Obama does lead by six or seven points, the results last night suggest that that’s a very soft six or seven. And more good news: Marquette is crowing that their last poll of Wisconsin nailed the outcome by predicting a seven-point Walker win, but Guy Benson notes that the same poll also showed Wisconsin deadlocked between Obama and Romney at 46 apiece. Even in a worst-case scenario, in other words, there’s every reason to believe that Romney’s in contention there, albeit facing an uphill battle to win. Is he willing to spend boatloads of dough, a la Walker himself, to try to take it? Or should he take heart that if Wisconsin is already this close, he’s bound to have even more golden opportunities in other swing states? Sean Trende:

Now, this also might be as good as it gets for Republicans, and again the 2012 general electorate will probably be more Democratic than this one. At the same time, Obama doesn’t want a low-to-mid-single-digit win in the Badger State. That would suggest a very close race nationally. Remember, he won the state by 14 points in 2008 while winning nationally by eight, so anything less than a six-point lead in the state is not a great sign for him.

As a final thought, ask yourself this: In June of 2008, do you think Walker could have withstood a recall election? Or in June of 2006? The 2012 electorate probably won’t look like 2010’s, but this stands as yet another data point that suggests the enthusiasm gap that plagued Republicans in the mid-to-late “aughts” has disappeared.

Josh Kraushaar of National Journal came to the same conclusion: If Obama’s five- to seven-point decline in Wisconsin from 2008 holds true across the board, then he’s in desperately deep trouble in closer swing states like Virginia and Ohio. Exit question: Should Romney gamble on Wisconsin or focus elsewhere? Remember, he’s got Wisconsinites Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, and Reince Priebus ready to go bat for him at home. Does that mean he can skip the state and hope that they deliver on his behalf or should he take their success as encouragement to campaign there?

Update: Walker himself says the state is competitive but that Romney is certainly still the underdog.

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