Lay of the Land: The Wisconsin Democratic primary

Wisconsin, which holds a key primary on Tuesday, is a particularly kaleidescopic state in terms of past Democratic primary results. About half of the votes in the 2004 presidential primary came from five counties (noted in bold in the map below). Oddly, each one has a different history and none of them match either the state electorate or the national primary electorate.

Our map shows the winners in each counties from the past four competive races here (Jimmy Carter vs. Mo Udall in 1976, Gary Hart vs. Walter Mondale in 1984, Bill Clinton vs. Jerry Brown in 1992, and John Kerry vs. John Edwards in 2004). Milwaukee County, which includes the state’s biggest city, backed Udall, whose support among liberals and union members got him heartbreakingly close to frontrunner Carter at the statewide level; it also bucked the state by going for union favorite Mondale. Dane County, which includes university-oriented Madison, has consistently gone for the more culturally liberal candidate. Democrats in suburban Waukesha County, which is heavily Republican in general elections, are almost like Dane County Democrats, but they backed the populist Edwards over Kerry. In blue-collar Racine County, Democrats are similar to those in Milwaukee except that they preferred the rabble-rousing Brown to the centrist Clinton. And Brown County, which includes the Republican-leaning Green Bay area, has almost mirrored Dane County but went for Carter over Udall.

Whew! With the major urban counties seemingly at cross purposes, a bloc of rural counties of the north and west have somehow ended up dictating the winner of each primary. (The largest of them are Manitowoc and Wood, which is south of Wausau.) The only pattern I can detect is that they lean toward the "cool" candidate over the one with fiery, class-warfare rhetoric. (That would help explain why Howard Dean flamed out in 2004 and lost every county in the state.) Based on the patterns in other states so far, Obama should do well in rural Wisconsin. The question is whether Clinton can stitch together enough votes in the far-from-monolithic big urban counties to pull off an upset.

Though Wisconsin has voted for the eventual Democratic nominee in three of the past four close primaries (the exception being when it backed Hart over Mondale), only a handful of small northern counties have consistently forecast who would be triumphant at the party convention.