Wisconsin, an "Elastic" State

The results of the Wisconsin recall election weren’t surprising; for the last month, polls had shown Walker with a solid lead over his Democratic opponent. What was interesting—and a little surprising—was the extent to which President Barack Obama has maintained a strong position in the Badger State. Among the 2.4 million people who voted in last night’s election—a slight decrease from presidential turnout—52 percent support Obama. Obama’s performance is down from 2008, when he captured 56 percent of the vote, but Mitt Romney hasn’t captured the difference. As with John McCain, only 43 percent of Wisconsin voters support Mitt Romney.

Even still, that’s a significant swing, and indicative of a point Nate Silver made last month. In an excellent post, Silver offered a different way to evaluate swing states. Rather than categorize states on the basis of their vote margins—how close the two parties' numbers are—Silver rated them on the basis of their "elasticity" or electoral responsiveness. As with economics, where an elastic good is one where demand is highly sensitive to price, an “elastic state as one that is relatively sensitive or responsive to changes in political conditions, such as a change in the national economic mood.” Likewise, an inelastic state is one which is relatively insensitive to these changes. The important thing to recognize is that elasticity is independent of vote share; a close state isn’t necessarily elastic, and a state where one side dominates isn’t necessarily inelastic.

Last night should remind us that Wisconsin is a fairly elastic state. According to Silver, it has an elasticity of 1.10—in other words, a 1 point change in the national numbers will result in a 1.1 point change among Wisconsin voters. By that standard, Obama’s Wisconsin performance is in keeping with his national numbers. Among all voters, according to the latest Pew Survey, Obama is leading Romney 49 percent to 42 percent, a 3.6 point swing compared to 2008. According to Silver, this should translate to a nearly 4 point swing in Wisconsin, and it does. Other states tell a similar story. With a .95 rating, Virginia is less elastic than most states, and accordingly, Obama’s position is fairly resilient.

What this means is that the GOP should continue to invest in Wisconsin, even if Obama is currently doing well. If his position deteriorates among national voters, then the effect will be greater in the Badger State. In which case, Republicans will be well-positioned to capitalize on the change. Likewise, as Silver points out, it’s worth it for the Obama campaign to invest in a state like Arizona, which has an elasticity of 1.13 percent. If Mitt Romney suddenly loses ground in the national race, then the odds of winning Arizona jump considerably for the Obama team. By contrast, we can safely say that North Carolina and Pennsylvania–both “swing states”–are likely to stick with their traditional partisan lean, on account of the fact that they are fairly inelastic in their preferences.

One last point. If you read Silver’s whole post (which you should), and take a look at the chart he produces, you’ll see that Romney’s best path to victory is in the Midwest. Those states are more elastic than usual, and will be responsive to campaigns and national conditions. Indeed, I’ll go as far as to say that if Romney wins in November, it will be because–in addition to Ohio–he peeled off states like Iowa, Colorado and yes, Wisconsin.