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Wisconsin Is a Swing State in More Ways Than One

One thing to keep in mind as you read about the continuing dispute in Wisconsin: The state is not just a swing state relative to the rest of the country, it’s also a swing state internally.

Here are two maps, prepared by the New York Times’s team of graphic journalists, which compare how Barack Obama fared in the state in 2008 to how Governor Scott Walker performed there last year:

Wisconsin is not one of those states — like Pennsylvania or Missouri — where the Democrats rack up huge margins in the cities and the Republicans dominate everywhere else. Yes, Democrats do very well in Madison and Milwaukee. But those cities are not all that large — collectively, Milwaukee County and Dane County, which includes Madison, account for only about one-quarter of the state’s voters — and most of the outlying areas are competitive.

Barack Obama beat John McCain outside of Dane and Milwaukee counties in 2008, and overall, he won 59 of the state’s 72 counties. In the governor’s race in 2010, Mr. Walker won the same number of counties. Other than Milwaukee and Madison for the Democrats and the suburbs of Milwaukee, which very Republican-leaning, most parts of the state are fully prepared to vote for candidates from either party.

This is why the electoral pressure is liable to be fairly acute on members of the state senate and state assembly: there are not many intrinsically safe seats. The median tenure for a state senator in Wisconsin is just eight years — two terms.

According to an analysis by the group Swing State Project, Mr. Obama received between 48 and 58 percent of the vote — within 5 percentage points of 53 percent he received nationwide — in 17 of Wisconsin’s 33 state senate districts, a majority. By contrast, this was true of only about 1 in 4 United States congressional districts and of 18 of the 50 states.

Republicans now occupy most of these swing districts. In fact, Mr. Obama carried 14 of the 19 state senate districts that they now hold.

Ordinarily, some of the Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate would have some insulation from the elevated passions of the moment, because state senate terms are staggered, and the Republicans elected in the G.O.P. wave of 2010 would not have to run again until 2014. But there is movement toward recall elections, which could force the issue before the voters as soon as late this year.

Nor are the Democrats in the state senate immune. I’ve been reluctant to do a deep-dive into the polling in the state, because essentially all of the state-level polling is partisan to one degree or another. But while the polls broadly agree that Governor Walker has become rather unpopular and that voters are skeptical of his proposal to limit the scope of collective bargaining for public-sector unions, the polls also suggest that Wisconsinites are not thrilled with the senate Democrats’ tactic of leaving the state to deny Republicans a quorum. And Republicans are organizing recall efforts against Democratic senators just as Democrats are going after Republicans, and 8 of the 14 Democrats have terms ending in 2012, meaning their strength of their support among voters was not tested in the Republican-leaning environment of last year.

Further increasing the risks to members of both parties is that the map of the state’s senate and assembly districts will soon be re-drawn to reflect the 2010 census, which could diminish the incumbency advantage in the elections of 2012 and 2014.

It is very difficult to predict how the standoff will be resolved. But there are powerful incentives for both Democrats and Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate to reach a compromise of some kind, one that would almost certainly involve cutting benefits and pay for state employees but not significantly altering the scope of collective bargaining.

Mr. Walker has so far resisted any suggestion of a compromise. But he may find himself the odd man out.

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: March 7, 2011

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this post bore an incorrect byline.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.