The 2010 elections undoubtedly represented a wave. Republicans gained at least six Senate seats and at least 60 house seats. However, not every Democrat in a close race lost - Harry Reid of Nevada and Barbara Boxer of California were able to hang on to their seats, for example, while Joe Manchin of West Virginia was able to hold the senate seat previously held by Robert Byrd. Two Democratic incumbents, Blanche Lincoln and Russ Feingold, lost their seats in the election. While Lincoln's loss seemed to be a foregone conclusion for months, Feingold's fate against Republican Ron Johnson seemed less certain. So what happened in Wisconsin? To a certain extent, Feingold was a victim of a larger across-the-board drop in support. However, a comparison of exit polling in 2004 and 2010 reveals key areas in which Feingold underperformed even when controlled against drops among other characteristics.
Feingold significantly underperformed among Catholic voters in 2010. In 2004, running against Tim Michels, Feingold won Catholics by ten percentage points - this year Feingold lost them by four percentage points. By comparison, Feingold lost Protestants in 2004 but only slightly underperformed among that group in 2010 - he lost by 13 percentage points this year and 7 percentage points in 2004. Crosstabulations were not available for members of other religious groups in either year. Although Johnson himself is Lutheran, he sat on the board of the Unified Catholic Schools of Oshkosh and served on the Green Bay Catholic Diocese' Financial Committee. Johnson also made news for supporting the Green Bay Catholic Diocese' position on a child Victims Act while he sat on that committee. Nationally, no pro-Republican trend among Catholics appears to exist when comparing 2004 and 2010.
Another point of interest for Feingold is that he actually overperformed his 2004 margin for urban voters - he won by 43 percentage points this year compared to thirty-two percentage points in 2004. However, while Feingold won suburban and rural voters by slight margins in 2004, he lost each by a wide margin in 2010. Additionally, urban voters accounted for a smaller portion of the electorate than in 2004 - they made up 26% of voters in 2004 but only 17% on Tuesday, likely partially a result of increased presidential year turnout in 2004.
Although these local anomalies help explain Feingold's loss, national trends almost certainly played a large role - specifically, his loss was connected to anger about the economy (and voters unhappy Democrats and President Obama over the economy).
Johnson was more successful than Feingold in picking up voters who supported the other party's candidate in 2008 - 15% of Obama voters supported Johnson but only 7% of McCain voters supported Feingold. In addition, more voters disapproved than approved of Obama, by seven percentage points. Johnson won those who said they disapproved of Obama, 87% to 13%, while Feingold won those who approved, 89% to 11%. Feingold won with 98% of the vote among those who said that their vote was meant to express support for Obama, and he also won among those who said Obama was not a factor, 52% to 46% - but Johnson got 96% of support among the 34% of people who said the were expressing opposition to Obama.
Johnson won by nine percentage points among the 65% of voters who said that the economy was the most important issue facing the country, and by 37 percentage points among those who said they were very worried about the economy. Feingold also experienced a drop in support among every income group making more than $30,000, possibly indicating a middle class abandoning Feingold because of fear about the economy. Direct comparisons are not possible because the income groups reported in 2004 and 2010 don't match, but in 2004 Feingold carried or came close to carrying every income group except those making more than $150,000. On Tuesday, Feingold lost every income group except those making less than $30,000.
Interestingly, Feingold led among those who said that health care was the most important issue. He also won by large margins among those who wanted to expand the current health care law and those who said they wanted to leave it as is - collectively, these two groups made up 53% of voters in Wisconsin, compared to 45% who wanted to repeal (89% of whom said they supported Johnson).
Johnson was strongly supported by members of the tea party movement - 89% of those who said they supported the tea party movement also supported Johnson, while 51% of those who were neutral and 88% of those who said they opposed the tea party movement supported Feingold. These numbers were almost identical to the national house exit poll numbers (although Republicans actually won those who were neutral to the tea party nationally), and about the same percentage of people said they supported the tea party in Wisconsin as nationally.
Feingold may ultimately have been the victim of a tough election year for Democrats in which he took the blame for a lack of economic growth. However, his loss may have been especially large because of factors such as what appears to be an unusually large drop in Catholic support and a lack of turnout urban areas, as well as a loss of the suburban and rural support he used to enjoy.