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Many factors contributed to Ron Johnson’s November victory. Observers say race was most likely one of them.


The role of race in the statewide elections, particularly in the different outcomes for Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. gov. Mandela Barnes (running for US Senate) should not be overlooked, some experts say. (NNS file photo by Sue Vliet)

In elections, does race matter?

Although the November campaigns are over and done, the 2024 elections are even now underway.

So we asked the question.

One conclusion: Other factors abound, but race, though difficult to quantify as among these, cannot be discounted.

In November, US Sen. Ron Johnson was elected by Wisconsin voters for the third time, and Gov. Tony Evers was elected to a second term – victories that support the conventional wisdom that incumbency and campaign spending play a very real role in the outcome of elections.

But the role of race in the statewide elections, particularly in the different outcomes for Evers and Lt. gov. Mandela Barnes (running for US Senate) should not be overlooked, according to experts.

One thing prompting the concern: Both are Democrats. Both were characterized by opponents as weak on crime. Evers, who is white, won by a margin of 3.4% percentage points. Barnes, who is Black, did not win, though losing by a narrow margin.

And both GOP gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels and Johnson were closely identified with Former President Donald Trump (Johnson more so), which was a handicap in many races nationally. But Johnson won. Michels did not.

“First thing we have to say is Evers was an incumbent and Barnes was not,” said Kathleen Dolan, distinguished professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “Sen. Johnson is the incumbent, so we would have expected him to have a slightly easier time.”

In an email, Paru Shah, professor of political science at UWM, said: “The fact that the two incumbents won is not surprising — political science research finds this advantage to be hard to overcome for almost all challengers.”

The effect of incumbency was on obvious display throughout the country this year.

Every single incumbent senator running for reelection – all 29 of them – ultimately won.

Many observers also noted the historically significant amounts of money spent by the campaigns.

In the 2010 race, Johnson’s campaign spent a little more than $15 million, and his opponent, Russ Feingold, spent roughly $20.3 million. In the 2016 rematch between these two candidates, Johnson spent about $20.4 million, and Feingold spent about $24.4 million.

By contrast, Johnson’s campaign spent over $34.4 this cycle, and Barnes’ spent over $40.7 million.

Additionally, the amount of money spent by outside groups on Wisconsin’s statewide races broke the previous record by 50%, according to an analysis by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog group that tracks money in politics.

The number of campaign ads was one clear example of how this money was put to use.

According to one analysis, over 14,000 television ads were broadcast for either Johnson or Barnes from Sept. 5 to Sept. 18, the highest number of spots of any Senate race in the country during this timeframe.

This high number of ads coincided with a clear shift in the polls.

“The timing of Barnes’ drop in popularity is consistent with the airing of Johnson’s increased frequency of campaign ads,” said John Johnson, research fellow in the Lubar Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education at Marquette University Law School.

After leading in the polls, by as much as 3.8 points at times, Barnes’ popularity eventually evened with Johnson’s by Sept. 20, then dropped below Johnson’s shortly after and stayed below it for the rest of the campaign, according to FiveThirtyEight’s aggregate polling data .

Supporters of Barnes have said, however, it was not merely the number of ads in the months leading up to the election that were influential but rather their implicit racism and reliance on long-standing tropes about Black people.

Attack of the attack ads

An ad on Johnson’s official campaign website asserted Barnes wants to reduce the prison population and defund the police, because he is “dangerously liberal on crime.”

Another ad stated that Barnes “coddles criminals and mocks victims.”

Both ads featured the same brief clip of Barnes pacing and scowling while speaking to a crowd.

A more explicit ad said that Barnes’ administration (he is lieutenant governor) “has already paroled 884 convicted criminals – many of them released into our community. Over 200 murderers. 44 child rapists” and concluded that electing Barnes to the Senate would be “just plain dangerous.”

The tactic of race-baiting by white candidates has a long precedent, according to a 2021 literature review by LaFleur Stephens-Dougan, associate professor of politics at Princeton University.

“As far back as Reconstruction and the early Jim Crow era,” Stephens-Dougan said, “white politicians have routinely engaged in race-baiting to generate political support.”

And Barnes’ drop in popularity in the polls, and the outcome of the election, are consistent with concerns about this sort of race-baiting, some observers say.

“There is research that shows dog-whistles for race, like crime and urban ‘problems,’ trigger implicit biases among voters who are going to associate those with Blacks,” Shah said. “Crime in Milwaukee, and in general Wisconsin, is low, so this message that it is scary in Milwaukee, and that a Black man is against law and order, was effective.”

“It’s very clear the ads that were run against Barnes, particularly the ones that were funded by some of these outside groups, were actually focused on race,” Dolan said. Because crime is not in the daily lives of most people, “they were more intended to remind people that he (Barnes) is Black … particularly if you think about the stereotype of the suburban white woman worried about crime – they (Johnson’s campaign) knew they had to peel off some of those people who might have been willing to vote for a Democrat.”

Exit polling does show more Independents voted for Evers than they did Barnes – as did those who hold “moderate” ideological views.

The outcome of the election is also consistent, however, with voters being genuinely concerned about crime, as Johnson’s supporters have said, in response to accusations of racism and race-baiting.

That is, Barnes’ “extreme” positions on crime and police, rather than his race, voters convinced that he is not the right fit for Wisconsin.

Republicans commonly use the tactic of accusing Democrats of being “soft” on crime, regardless of the race of their opponent.

Michels, the Republican candidate for governor, made similar accusations against the Evers administration, particularly its policies regarding the state’s parole system.

Despite the similar focus, though, fewer white Wisconsinites voted for Michels than did for Johnson, according to the exit polling.

Polling by Marquette University Law School also shows voters’ concern about crime actually decreasing between September and November, the opposite of what one would expect if the claims by Johnson’s campaign about crime versus race were true.

Although Dolan said she thinks race ultimately played a role in the outcome of the elections, “we cannot really quantify that role.” It is, however, reasonable to suggest “that part of Barnes’ defeat was the intense racial focus of Johnson’s ads.”


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