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By Dave Umhoefer February 10, 2013

Chris Matthews says Sen. Ron Johnson was elected in ‘very low turnout’ contest

For anyone still keeping score on pundit reaction to the clash between then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin over the attack on U.S. diplomats in Libya:

Don’t count Chris Matthews in the Johnson camp.

To say the least.

The host of the MSNBC-TV talk show "Hardball" lambasted the questions and remarks that Johnson, a Republican, addressed to Clinton when she appeared before a Senate committee on Jan. 23, 2013.

Matthews and two guests that night heaped praise on Clinton, while ripping Johnson’s queries about the way the attacks were initially portrayed to the public.

Matthews went on to question, at least implicitly, the legitimacy of Johnson’s 2010 win over Democratic U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold. That  mid-term election saw Republicans regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives and pick up seats in the Senate, including this one.

"That was kind of a pissant performance by that guy from Wisconsin," Matthews said of Johnson’s questioning of Clinton. "I don't know how these guys get over the wall into American politics. I think they won in a very low turnout elections (sic) in Wisconsin."

Matthews was just getting warmed up.

He added: "I think everybody should run now in national elections, forced to go into elections where there's a lot of voters, so you don't get this weird, warped sense of people coming who supposedly represent the American electorate. That guy doesn't represent anybody."

Wisconsin, in our memory, typically has high turnout elections.

But is Matthews right that Johnson was elected in a "very low turnout" one?

Depends on the point of comparison.

Compared with the 2008 and 2012 presidential years, the 2010 election in Wisconsin drew about 800,000-900,000 fewer voters, with the Senate race and a gubernatorial contest leading the ballot, state turnout data shows. That gap is a well-known feature of American politics.

In those two presidential years, about 72 percent of voting-eligible Wisconsinites turned out, and it was even higher -- almost 75 percent -- in 2004, according to calculations and analysis by the United States Election Project at George Mason University.

By contrast, Wisconsin turnout in the 2010 midterm election featuring Johnson-Feingold was about 52 percent of eligible voters.

So from that perspective, the turnout was lower.

MSNBC spokeswoman Lauren Skowronski told us that Matthews meant just such a comparison in his remarks.

She explained further that Matthews’ reference to multiple candidates -- "they won in very low turnout elections in Wisconsin" -- likely referred to Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who also won in that 2010 election.

On his show, Matthews also longed for a system where everybody runs in the higher-turnout presidential years. That’s his opinion, of course, so we can’t fact check it. But we can note that such a change would require a constitutional amendment, because Article One fixes those terms at six years for senators and two for House members.

Case closed? Hardly.

We wondered: How did the 2010 midterm here stack up to midterms past -- and to similar contests in other states?

At 52 percent, turnout in 2010 was slightly lower than the 2006 turnout of 53 percent and significantly higher than the 45 percent in 2002, according to data from the George Mason project’s website.

If you go back to 1998 -- when Feingold nipped Republican challenger Mark Neumann in a midterm -- the turnout was considerably lower than in the 2010 race that Matthews termed "very low turnout."

In fact, in 1998, Feingold’s vote total was 230,000 lower than his future challenger Johnson received in 2010.

So there’s also fodder for saying that 2010 was a typical turnout year, or even high compared to a couple other relatively recent midterms.

But Matthews’ statement put things in a national perspective -- "I don't know how these guys get over the wall into American politics." So, how did turnout in Wisconsin stack up?

In 2010, the turnout in Wisconsin ran 11 percentage points above the U.S. average. Only six states had higher turnout on the day Johnson defeated Feingold: Minnesota, Maine, Washington, South Dakota, Oregon and Alaska.

It’s not hard to find examples of Democratic Party senators who won in November 2010 in states with lower turnout than Wisconsin. Among them: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Barbara Boxer of California and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

We found that Wisconsin’s turnout is typically around the top 5 no matter the year, based on six elections we reviewed.

There were even five states that had lower turnout in the 2012 presidential contest than Wisconsin did in the midterm year of 2010, according to the George Mason data. They were: Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Hawaii.

Michael McDonald, the George Mason professor behind the elections project, said the Republican Party generally -- but not always -- gets an advantage in lower turnout midterm elections. Younger voters, the poor and minority voters come out in smaller numbers than in presidential election years, cutting into the modern Democratic Party’s base, he noted.

It can cut the other way, too. Democrat Tammy Baldwin won Wisconsin’s other Senate seat in 2012 amid the higher turnout in the presidential year.

The 2012 electorate included a higher percentage of liberals, city-dwellers and young voters, and a lower percentage of Republicans, than the 2010 electorate, our Journal Sentinel colleague Craig Gilbert reported in a "Wisconsin Voter" story in November 2012.

University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist and pollster Charles Franklin said it was "crazy talk" by Matthews if the MSNBC host was arguing that the only way a conservative such as Ron Johnson could win was in a midterm election.

National "wave" elections favoring one party or the other can factor in, and the particulars of each campaign factor in as well.

Franklin noted that Jim Doyle, the Democrat who served two terms as Wisconsin governor, unseated a Republican incumbent in a 2002 midterm election. And Doyle won re-election in 2006.

Our rating

Matthews said Johnson won in a "very low turnout" election when he knocked off Feingold in 2010.

His comment holds up if the comparison point is presidential years, but it’s off the mark if prior midterms in Wisconsin and in other states are the standard.

We rate his statement Half True.

Our Sources

MSNBC, video of Chris Matthews comments on "Hardball," Jan. 23, 2010

Journal Sentinel, video link to Johnson-Clinton exchange, Jan. 23, 2013

Interview with Michael McDonald, associate professor, George Mason University, Jan. 30, 2013

United State Elections Project, data tables, state by state voter turnout, 2000-2012, accessed Jan. 30, 2013

Interview with Charles Franklin, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, Jan. 30, 2013

Email interview, Lauren Skowronski, vice president, MSNBC Media Relations, Jan. 31, 2013

Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, election results data, accessed Jan. 30, 2013

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Ron Johnson steps back from comment on Hillary Clinton’s emotional testimony," Jan. 24, 2013

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Outgoing secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sen. Johnson tangle over Benghazi attack," Jan. 23, 2013

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Wisconsin Voter, "Explaining Wisconsin’s dizzying political swings of 2010, 2012," Nov. 10, 2012

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Chris Matthews says Sen. Ron Johnson was elected in ‘very low turnout’ contest

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