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As Gov. Scott Walker moves closer to launching his presidential campaign, he’s working to distinguish himself from a crowd of contenders for the 2016 Republican nomination.
Walker, one of the younger contenders in the field, often reminds audiences he has successfully faced statewide voters three times since 2010.
He took that talking point a step further June 2, 2015 when responding to a question in Florida about how the party can appeal to younger voters, especially after the dismal showing of Mitt Romney among young voters in 2012. President Barack Obama took 60 percent of the 18- to 24-year-old vote, compared with 36 percent for Romney.
"Last year, when I was up for election -- again, for the third time -- we won again," Walker said. "But we carried -- one of the polls, exit polls -- showed we went 49-48 amongst 18- to 24-year-olds. That's largely unheard of for a Republican."
Was Walker’s performance among young voters in 2014 unusually strong for a Republican?
Behind the numbers
In November 2014, Walker defeated Democrat Mary Burke, 53 percent to 46 percent, to win a second term. He previously won a recall election in 2012.
In 2014, Edison Research conducted an exit poll for a number of news organizations based on responses from voters after they left the polling place.
In his claim, Walker specifically referenced voters 18 to 24 years old and said he "carried" that group. But Walker had the numbers reversed: Burke won 49 percent, while Walker had 48 percent, according to the exit poll.
AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Our American Revival, Walker’s campaign exploratory group, said the governor misspoke. In the 2012 recall, Walker won that age group by 51 percent to 48 percent. Strong said he was thinking of that when he made the "carried" comment and mistakenly combined the 2012 edge with the 2014 numbers.
However, it is important to note that the 18 to 24 year old segment in the 2014 exit poll included only 191 voters -- about 8 percent of the overall sample of 2,319 voters.
That means it carries a large margin of error, said Joe Lenski, executive vice president for Edison. And that kind of margin of error for the subgroup makes analysis of that portion of the poll difficult.
"There’s really not much you can say other than among 18 to 24 year olds they were really close," Lenski said of Walker and Burke.
How Walker compares
But what about Walker’s broader point, that his appeal to young voters in 2014 was unusually strong for a Republican candidate?
That’s difficult to measure as well, according to Lenski and Charles Franklin, a respected pollster and director of the Marquette Law School poll.
Franklin suggested comparing Walker’s performance with young voters to that of other Republican governors who were up for re-election in November 2014. Here’s a look at three such races:
Florida: Among 18 to 24 year olds, the exit poll showed Republican Gov. Rick Scott had 38 percent, while Democrat Charlie Crist and Libertarian Adrian Wyllie had a combined 62 percent. So Scott, who won reelection, did not fare as well as Walker.
When you look at the broader group of 18- to 29-year olds, Scott had 41 percent.
Michigan: In the 18 to 24 group, the exit poll showed Republican incumbent Rick Snyder had 46 percent, while Democrat Mark Schauer had 52 percent. Again, Walker fared a bit better than Snyder, who won reelection.
Among 18- to 29-year olds, Snyder had 48 percent.
Ohio: Numbers were not available for the 18 to 24 group, but the exit poll showed Republican incumbent John Kasich won 56 percent of the 18 to 29 year olds, compared with 41 percent for his challenger, Ed Fitzgerald. In Wisconsin in 2014, Walker had 47 percent of the votes in that broader group, compared to 51 percent for Burke.
So, Kasich fared better than Walker, but it should be noted he won reelection in a landslide, 64 percent to 33 percent.
That points to another challenge with a claim such as the one made by Walker. Candidates don’t run by themselves. For voters, it is a choice between two (or even more) contenders.
Lenski said younger voters nationally -- especially in the 25-29 year old group -- tend to lean Democratic, in part because of the excitement stirred by Obama’s first campaign in 2008.
Strong, the Walker spokeswoman, pointed to a Nov. 7, 2014 story in The College Fix, a right-leaning web site that is written by college students.
The story noted that in the 2014 election, "overall, exit polls found voters age 18 to 29 favored Democratic candidates by a margin of 54 percent to 43 percent in U.S. House races, a trend often mirrored in Senate and gubernatorial races as well. Yet the youth vote was key in several of the battleground states where Republicans won."
So, generally speaking, Walker’s performance was better than that of a typical Republican among young voters.
Walker said his performance in 2014 indicates that he appeals to young voters in a way "that’s largely unheard of for a Republican."
He based his claim on a narrow group of voters -- 18 to 24 year olds. When we measured his claim against the performance of three other Republican governors for the same election he fared better than two and not as well as the third, who won in a landslide.
In any case, the data comes with a wide margin of error and should be used cautiously. As poll director Lenski said: the best we can say is that it was close.
We rate Walker’s claim Half True.
Telephone interview, Joe Lenski, Edison Research, June 15, 2015
Emails, AshLee Strong, Our American Revival, June 4, 2015
Emails, telephone interview, Charles Franklin, Marquette University, June 5, 2015
The College Fix, "Young Republican voters help midterm election’s red wave," Nov. 7, 2014
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