President Bill Clinton will campaign tomorrow in Milwaukee for Tom Barrett in his recall fight against Scott Walker. Greg Sargent writes that this was a late-game decision that involved heavy lobbying from leaders in the Democratic Party.

People like to extrapolate from last-minute campaign events like this about the state of races. I’ve heard others look at the mobilizing against non-existent voter fraud on the right and assume that Walker allies must think the recall is going to be close. In reality, this recall is a particularly hard one to figure. It’s fairly unprecedented, especially in a state like Wisconsin with high political engagement. Both sides appear to have plenty of enthusiasm, and there are few undecideds. Public polling has shown a consistent lead for Walker, but private polling from the Democratic side shows a tie race, and Republicans have not countered that with polling of their own.

To figure out what will really happen, I think you have to factor in what Sargent writes here:

Labor and Dems are widely believed to have a superior ground game to that of Walker, though it’s still unclear whether it will be enough to compensate for Walker’s seeming lead in the polls. A Clinton visit, Dems hope, will galvanize base turnout (the black vote in Milwaukee, for example) just enough to put Barrett over the top.

Ah, the ground game. This is seen as the savior, with labor throwing a lifeline to Barrett to pull him over the finish line. There’s one thing about this that I can’t get past. The goal of Walker’s anti-worker bill was to decimate public sector unions, to ruin the funding base for Democrats in Wisconsin elections. In other words, the bill was designed to deal with close races like this, to give Republican candidates an advantage. And a story in the Wall Street Journal sticks out like a sore thumb on this point:

Public-employee unions in Wisconsin have experienced a dramatic drop in membership—by more than half for the second-biggest union—since a law championed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker sharply curtailed their ability to bargain over wages and working conditions [...]

Wisconsin membership in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—the state’s second-largest public-sector union after the National Education Association, which represents teachers—fell to 28,745 in February from 62,818 in March 2011, according to a person who has viewed Afscme’s figures. A spokesman for Afscme declined to comment.

Much of that decline came from Afscme Council 24, which represents Wisconsin state workers, whose membership plunged by two-thirds to 7,100 from 22,300 last year [...]

Membership declines could be self-perpetuating, said Mr. Chaison of Clark University. With diminished dues, unions deliver fewer services, making membership less appealing and hampering recruiting.

Simply put, public employee unions were decimated by the assault on collective bargaining. They’re losing members at a rapid rate. That means they’re losing their funding base. And that means that their efforts will be that much less effective. That was the entire point.

This could be much of the reason why, in that Marquette poll out yesterday, when asked whether they supported restrictions on collective bargaining for public employee unions, one year after the anti-worker law, 55% of Wisconsin voters said yes, and 41% said no. There isn’t really anyone left to tell voters otherwise.

The state president of the American Federation of Teachers is quoted in the article saying that a failure in the recall spells doom for unions nationwide. There’s a lot of truth to that. And that’s why it was so important for the national funding to flow into Wisconsin to take a stand here. Clinton’s presence moves in that direction. But it may be too late.