Votes In 2018 Wisconsin Supreme Court Race Were Most Partisan In Two Decades
The victory by Rebecca Dallet over Michael Screnock in the Wisconsin Supreme Court election on April 3, 2018 capped off a particularly partisan campaign for what is officially a non-partisan seat. Though the outcome wasn’t particularly close — Dallet won by a margin of 56 to 44 percent over Screnock — the ballots cast across the state reflected an ongoing partisan voting trend in Wisconsin Supreme Court elections.
Partisanship among voters was in evidence in this race’s primary, held on Feb. 20. Examining the relationship between the 2016 presidential vote and the state Supreme Court vote in Wisconsin's 72 counties, there was indeed a connection. Presidential vote results are an aggregate measure of partisanship commonly used by political scientists.
It turns out that during the primary election, there was a very strong relationship between the 2016 presidential vote and support for Supreme Court justice across Wisconsin's 72 counties. The more a county’s voters supported Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 election, the more likely they were to support Screnock, the conservative court candidate. Conversely, as the liberal court candidate, Dallet tended to do well in places where Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton performed well.
Partisanship was certainly present during the primary campaigns. In fact, national politicians and other partisan figures were mentioned in candidate speeches and campaign advertisements.
In the run up to officially non-partisan the April 3 election, partisanship continued to be on full display. Dallet received endorsements from former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Senator Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, and former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords (a Democrat from Arizona). Eric Holder, the former U.S. Attorney General who served in the Obama administration, likewise endorsed and also campaigned for Dallet on behalf of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. In terms of support for Screnock, the National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund, a political action committee, endorsed his candidacy.
It wasn't just endorsements, though. Political parties and ideological groups were involved in the race in a variety of ways. For example, the Republican Party of Wisconsin paid for direct mail that featured a picture of Screnock and Gov. Scott Walker, who has high approval ratings among conservatives. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, a conservative trade association that regularly promotes Republican candidates, ran an anti-Dallet add that ended up attracting controversy. And a group called For Wisconsin's Future, a state affiliate of a union-backed national political action committee that supports Democrats, created Facebook advertisements in support of Dallet, including one that described Screnock as "a rubber stamp for Scott Walker's divisive agenda."
Did partisanship play a similar role in the general election as it did in the primary?
In the primary election, the correlation between the county-level presidential vote in 2016 and the county-level state Supreme Court vote was .81, a very high level. (The maximum possible correlation value is 1, while the minimum is 0, which would indicate no relationship between measures).
The following chart displays the relationship between President Trump's share of the two-party vote in the Nov. 8, 2016 general election and the share of the vote garnered by Screnock on the April 3, 2018.
As was the case in the primary election, there is a strong, positive relationship between the 2016 county-level presidential vote and the 2018 state Supreme Court vote. As county-level support for Trump increases, so does support for Screnock. The correlation between the two measures is .89. That value indicates that there was an even stronger connection between the county-level presidential and Supreme Court vote in the general election than in the primary.
It is important to note that even though overall vote shares were different in the primary compared to the general election, it is entirely possible for partisanship to play a more pronounced role in the latter. Indeed, it is critical to look below the surface of election outcomes (for example, at county-level results) in order to better understand the political forces that are at play.
To provide additional historical context, the average correlation between the county-level vote for the 10 Wisconsin Supreme Court elections held between 1997 to 2016 and the preceding presidential election for each can be calculated. During that period, the average correlation between the two measures was .67. That number indicates that over the past 20 years, there has been a fairly strong connection between the presidential and state Supreme Court vote in Wisconsin.
However, voting patterns the 2018 spring general election was more partisan than any of the Wisconsin Supreme Court elections since the late 1990s. When its outcome became clear after polls closed on April 3, official statements and social media posts by voters and elected officials seemed to confirm that finding. Dallet supporters rejoiced her victory and pointed to it as a sign of what they're hoping will be a wave of victories by Democratic candidates in the fall general election. Meanwhile, Walker posted tweets decrying that prospect of a #BlueWave in November. Wisconsin is well into a new era of judicial elections — one where partisanship plays an enormous role in vote choice.
Votes In 2018 Wisconsin Supreme Court Race Were Most Partisan In Two Decades was originally published on WisContext which produced the article in a partnership between Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television and Cooperative Extension.
Partisanship Leaves Its Mark On Wisconsin Supreme Court Races
Voter turnout was low yet higher than the recent average for a February ballot when Wisconsin held a primary election for a state Supreme Court seat on Feb. 20, 2018. While debates rage on about whether judges should be elected at all, there are also differing views on the question of whether judicial elections should be partisan or non-partisan.
A fairly small number of states across the United States — six of the 38 that elect judges — use partisan elections. However, many states, including Wisconsin, hold non-partisan state Supreme Court elections, which means that party labels are not provided alongside candidate names on the ballot. The use of the non-partisan ballot was a Progressive Era reform, the hope being that it would remove the influence of national parties from local affairs. Interestingly, although Wisconsin technically has non-partisan elections, partisanship has been on full display in recent state Supreme Court races.
Indeed, during the 2011 Wisconsin Supreme Court campaign, which pitted conservative incumbent Justice David Prosser against liberal challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg, much of the focus of the race was on the state's GOP governor and the Act 10 debate. That election was described in the New York Times as "a referendum on Wisconsin’s new Republican governor, Scott Walker, his collective bargaining bill, and, more broadly, the Republican politicians who now control the Capitol."
It's not just other state-level politicians that have been linked to Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates, though. National political figures are also discussed in the context of state Supreme Court elections. In the 2011 race between Prosser and Kloppenburg, Sarah Palin endorsed Prosser. In the February 2018 primary for an open seat, which featured two liberal candidates, Tim Burns and Rebecca Dallet, and one conservative, Michael Screnock, partisanship and President Donald Trump played a central role in the race. In fact, Dallet even used footage of Trump in a campaign ad.
Partisan politics has seeped into the race in other ways as well. Screnock received a large sum of campaign money from the state Republican Party, while Burns and Dallet each spoke at a state Democratic Party convention.
Given observations like these about the increasingly partisan (and nationalized) nature of state Supreme Court elections, how might that be reflected in the relationship between presidential votes and patterns of voting in state Supreme Court elections? Exactly how closely connected are partisan preferences in presidential and state Supreme Court elections?
When comparing county-level data on presidential and Wisconsin Supreme Court election returns, clear connections emerge.
Let's start with the 2018 Wisconsin Supreme Court primary election. To what extent was support for Trump during the 2016 presidential election related to the 2018 state Supreme Court vote?
The following chart displays the relationship between Trump's share of the two-party vote in the November 2016 general election and the share of the vote garnered by Screnock, the conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate, in the February 2018 primary. There is clearly a strong, positive relationship between the county-level presidential vote and the state Supreme Court vote.
The correlation between the two measures is very high at .81. (The maximum possible value is 1, while the minimum is 0, which would indicate no correlation between the measures). In short, partisanship clearly underpinned voting (at least at the county level) in Wisconsin's non-partisan Supreme Court primary election.
It's helpful to look at previous Wisconsin Supreme Court races to see if the same relationship characterizes those elections.
The following chart displays the relationship between Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's performance in Wisconsin counties in 2012 and incumbent Justice Rebecca Bradley's share of the vote in the 2016 state Supreme Court general election. (The 2012 race between Romney and incumbent President Barack Obama was the most recent presidential election before the 2016 state Supreme Court race.) Appointed by Governor Walker in 2015 to fill a vacancy on the court, Bradley was widely viewed as the conservative candidate, while her opponent JoAnne Kloppenburg, returning to the ballot five years later, was similarly seen as the liberal candidate.
Again, there is a strong, positive relationship between the county-level presidential and state Supreme Court vote. The correlation between the two measures is .87.
Doing the same analysis for the 2011 Wisconsin Supreme Court election, there is a nearly identical relationship — the correlation between vote share for Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Prosser vote share is .88. Thus, it is clear that, at least in Wisconsin Supreme Court elections in the 2010s, there is a strong partisan component to the vote.
The increasingly nationalized nature of non-partisan state Supreme Court elections is a development that many are likely to find frustrating. Progressive Era reformers would certainly not be happy. However, as Wisconsin moves toward the spring general election on April 3, partisanship shows no sign of fading. Indeed, a New York Times report indicates that former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who served in the Obama administration, will visit Wisconsin during the state Supreme Court general election campaign.
Like it or not, partisanship has become a permanent feature in Wisconsin's non-partisan Supreme Court elections.
Partisanship Leaves Its Mark On Wisconsin Supreme Court Races was originally published on WisContext which produced the article in a partnership between Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television and Cooperative Extension.