Independent voters could decide the November elections. So, why is Tim Michels moving hard right?
Wisconsin is pretty much equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, so a common strategy for both parties is to turn out their base voters. Earlier this summer Democrats were despondent and Republicans were energized. Polls showed a big enthusiasm gap for the GOP even after Roe v. Wade was overturned.
But that has changed. The latest Marquette poll shows a virtually identical level of high interest in voting. About 90% of both Democrats and Republicans say they are absolutely certain or very likely to vote in November. It’s not clear why the gap vanished, but a fair guess is that a string of legislative victories in Congress and the confirmation of a new liberal Supreme Court Justice may have energized Democrats.
But here’s the thing. If the state is split down the middle and each party has maxed out on turnout, who wins? The answer is the party that does best with independents. And since independents tend to be less ideological you’d expect candidates to be moderating their positions.
Gov. Tony Evers is doing that to a limited extent. But keep in mind that Evers had no primary, so he had no need to move left to hold onto his party’s base. In other words, he doesn’t have to move much to get closer to the center. On a hot button issue like abortion, since there is strong support for abortion rights among the voting population as a whole, just maintaining his basic pro-choice stance is a mainstream position.
And here’s where things get curious. You would think that, after the primary, Michels would soften his hard line anti-abortion stance. Nope. He’s sticking with his support for Wisconsin’s 1849 law outlawing abortion in all cases, including rape and incest. That would seem to fly in the face of a strategy to capture independent voters.
But here is a key point. On a list of the issues that are most important to independent voters, abortion ranks fifth, behind inflation, crime, public schools and an accurate vote count. And all of those issues are ones on which Republicans have the upper hand.
So, Michels’ theory could be that if he maintains a tough stance on abortion, he holds the enthusiasm of his base. He’s willing to risk turning off independents because it’s an issue that isn’t especially important to them. They might not like his position on abortion, but that won’t be the issue that captures their vote. And as for taking a stance that might light a fire under Democrats, well, they’re already pretty fired up anyway.
The same goes for Michels’ move to the right on election denial. It maintains the enthusiasm of his base, creates no additional enthusiasm for his opponents because they’re already maxed out, and it’s an issue that isn’t all that important to independents.
As of earlier this month Evers held a six point lead with independents, 45% – 39%. But an independent candidate, Joan Beglinger, had 11% support. Beglinger dropped out of the race just as Marquette went into the field and she endorsed Michels. So, it’s likely that that six point lead is a mirage.
In other words, it’s possible that in a state equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, the independent voters who could decide this election are also split right down the middle. But the issue landscape has to be concerning for Democrats.
Postscript: Democratic candidates nationwide have spent $124 million on ads that reference abortion — twenty times more than they spent on that issue in 2018. It makes sense because it’s one of the few issues on which they have broad public support for their position. But if the election comes down to independents, do they risk turning off those voters by focussing so heavily on an issue that ranks relatively low on their list of concerns?