The recall election in Wisconsin between Gov. Scott Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett finally reached the level of attention you would expect from the biggest campaign in the country in 2012, save the Presidential race. A high-profile debate on Thursday led to the powerful exchange above, with the signature line from Barrett, “I have a police department that arrests felons. He has a practice of hiring them.” The John Doe investigation against corruption in Walker’s various political and campaign offices, alluded to by Barrett there, generated another set of headlines as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that prosecutors opened the investigation because they were stonewalled by Walker’s county executive office. Thirteen colleagues of Walker have now been granted immunity in the case, with the thirteenth being Fran McLaughlin, the former spokeswoman at Walker’s county executive office.

An email uncovered as part of a public records request intimates that Walker would only seek higher pension contributions from “active state employees” and not teachers or local government workers. That email was from September 2010, yet by February 2011, Walker sought higher pension contributions from all non-public safety state and local employees, in addition to the collective bargaining restrictions.

Former candidate Bill Clinton campaigned with Barrett on Friday, saying that the “divide and conquer” strategy breaks with American ideals. Walker campaigned with Nikki Haley on Friday.

All of this now fades into the background, however, as the 72 hours before the election begin. Get out the vote operations are seen as crucial. Walker has led in virtually every public poll in the mid-single digits; while in Democratic polls, the race is described as a dead heat. One of the major difficulties in modeling the race comes from the questions about turnout. Based on absentee voting, state election observers believe that turnout will be higher for the recall than the 2010 gubernatorial election, which also featured Walker and Tom Barrett:

With more than 182,000 absentee ballots requested, high early voting numbers suggest overall turnout in Tuesday’s recall election will exceed that of the 2010 governor’s race, and in some key locations could even match the 2008 presidential election.

“This is unprecedented,” Appleton City Clerk Charlene Peterson said. “We’ve never seen a statewide recall, so I’m kind of looking at the pulse of the absentee for markers” of overall turnout [...]

Statewide, the Government Accountability Board tracks around one-third of early voting locations, including most major cities.

Of those reporting, 182,000 people had voted early or requested mail-in absentee ballots as of noon Friday, the last day of early voting.

The end totals will likely come close to or exceed the 2010 gubernatorial election’s 230,744 total ballots. The 2008 presidential election easily tops both numbers with more than 600,000 total absentee ballots filed.

Of all turnout locations, Milwaukee could be the key. While Walker and Barrett both hail from there, in 2010 heavily Democratic Milwaukee was Barrett country. He won there by nearly 50 points. But turnout dropped significantly in Milwaukee, relative to Dane County (the other big Democratic area, home to Madison), in the 2010 gubernatorial race and the 2011 state Supreme Court race. In the 2008 Presidential election, turnout in Milwaukee and Dane County were almost even. That’s why Clinton’s rally was held in Milwaukee, in an effort to boost turnout.

The difference between the city’s turnout for president in 2008 (275,042 votes) and governor in 2010 (187,811 votes) was almost 90,000 votes. Closing that gap in half would generate another 45,000 votes in an overwhelmingly Democratic area.

“That’s a two percent overall impact on the election,” said Chheda. (About 2.1 million people voted in the 2010 race).

So far, absentee and early voting has run very strong in Milwaukee. Almost 19,000 voters in Milwaukee have cast ballots, relative to 14,000 in the 2010 gubernatorial race which had a 3-week early voting window (the window for the recall was two weeks). The city’s Election Commission head, Sue Edman, said that turnout could reach 210,000 for the city. That would be 23,000 more than the 2010 gubernatorial race, and most of those votes would go to Barrett. That’s more like a 1% impact on the election, and if it’s a close race, that’s significant.

It should be said that turnout will probably range higher in traditional Republican strongholds as well. But unions say they have the superior ground game and the ability to turn voters out. There’s no question that turnout is the X-factor of the race. It will determine which polling outfits got it right or wrong. And it will determine the political futures for Tom Barrett and Scott Walker.