How Union Voters Impact 3 Swing States

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The true meaning of Gov. Scott Walker’s win in Wisconsin’s recall vote will be assessed and reassessed over the next few months, but no matter how you cut the results there looked to be one sure loser in the contest: organized labor.

The entire Walker recall effort sprung from public sector unions’ anger over legislation that limited their collective bargaining power. The state’s unions took to the streets to get signatures. They went to the polls to remove Mr. Walker from office. And when all the votes were counted … Mr. Walker held on. He actually won by a slightly larger margin than he had when he initially captured the governor’s mansion in 2010.

For unions, which have seen their membership fall in recent decades, the results may be seen as a testament to their weakening political influence. And in that waning power there may be some warning signs for the Democratic party and President Barack Obama in November. But the importance of Wisconsin and the power of unions can be over-read.

If you look at union membership by state and compare it to each state’s propensity to vote Democratic the trend is unmistakable. The more union members a state has, generally, the more likely it is to vote with the Democrats.

Using the latest electoral breakdown from political analyst Charlie Cook: In states that are rated as “solid Democratic” 17.7% of workers belong to a union, in states that are “likely Democratic” its 15.1%, in states that “lean Democratic” its 14.6%, in “toss-ups” its is 9.1%, in “likely Republican” states its 7.6% and in “solid Republican” states it is only 6.2%.

That walk down the ladder in support is even more pronounced when you look at membership in public unions – an orderly progression through “solid Democratic” to “solid Republican” states.

When you add all of that up, it seems there is reason for Mr. Obama and the Democrats to be concerned about the decline of union power, particularly if Wisconsin is indeed some kind of turning point. It would suggest unions may be of less help to the Democrats in states they need to win, particularly in the 2012 issue environment.

But the picture is a bit more complicated than that.

Take for example Ohio, Virginia and Colorado, three toss-up states that both campaigns think will be crucial in 2012 with three very different union membership profiles. For the rest of this week's Politics Counts column, please visit the Wall Street Journal's Web site.