Wisconsin goes to the polls today in recall elections for Governor Scott Walker, Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, and four state Senators. If successful, it would be only the third gubernatorial recall in American history. More money has been spent on these races than on any election in Wisconsin ever, and as Tom Barrett said today, the large majority of that money was on Walker’s side, coming from special interests outside the state. Walker outspent Barrett from anywhere between 6:1 and 10:1.
The polls indicate that Walker will end up victorious, though Republicans may well lose control of the state Senate. Turnout will be a major factor, but Democrats have much to overcome, as an average of all polling shows a roughly 6-point advantage for Walker. The internal Democratic polls have it as a dead heat, while public polls with a Republican lean have it in the double digits. Democrats have complained about some public poll methodologies, but the fact that many of them show a healthy lead for Barack Obama against Mitt Romney in addition to a Walker lead suggest that they are not outrageously designed. Nate Silver writes:
It could be that Mr. Barrett does overperform his polls, but not by enough to win. A benchmark for a superior turnout operation is that it might typically be worth an additional two or three points – fewer than the six points by which he now trails Mr. Walker in the average of surveys [...]
From a macroscopic view, the mechanics of why Mr. Walker is likely to prevail are not that hard to discern. The results of another recall election last August, in which Democrats succeeded in recalling two Wisconsin state senators but failed in efforts to oust four others, had served as something of a referendum on Mr. Walker. My interpretation of the results was that they implied that opinion in the state was about evenly divided on Mr. Walker at the time in terms of how it translated into actual votes.
Since then, however, Mr. Walker’s performance ratings have improved, with his approval rating exceeding his disapproval rating in most surveys. It is difficult for an incumbent to lose with a net-positive approval rating under any circumstances, and it is probably more so in the case of a recall election, when some voters might give Mr. Walker the benefit of the doubt to allow him to serve out his term. (Mr. Walker, if he wins on Tuesday, would be up for a vote again in 2014 when his original term expires.)
I would say the best story you can make for a Barrett win lies in a confluence of media coverage on Walker’s John Doe investigation over the past week. Tim Russell, a close Walker aide, revealed himself in court yesterday as the source for the damaging allegation that Walker stonewalled the prosecutors who initiated the investigation. This suggests that Russell is cooperating with prosecutors against Walker. David Shuster reported just a couple days ago that Walker is a target of the investigation. This has been corroborated elsewhere. This raises the stakes of the election, if people were looking for misconduct in office as a reason for recalling the governor.
So that’s the story. Damning revelations in the final days could swing the few undecideds toward Barrett’s way. Barrett had a better debate last Thursday, with some memorable lines. Bill Clinton came to town. Democrats, led by labor, think they have a superior ground game. You combine those all together, and you get the bank shot that enables a victory.
Oh, and don’t forget that the President managed to send a tweet in support of Barrett. I’m sure that’ll make the difference. While Barrett made the case that the Wisconsin grassroots, not national leaders, should and did drive the recall, privately he must be stewing over the arm’s length at which the national party has kept him.
You can just look to Silver’s polling story to understand official Democratic reticence. They didn’t want to get caught supporting a loser. That supreme cautiousness, in the face of a flood of money on Walker’s side, tells much of the tale.
We could see a split decision tonight if Democrats recapture the state Senate despite losing the Governor’s race; given the districts involved, this is potentially likely. But while that could stop the bleeding, much damage has already been done to worker’s rights by Walker and his Republican allies. Public unions are bleeding support. There will be lots of second-guessing after the recalls end, but one question could be whether it made sense to jump from a protest movement right into electoral mode, or if using strike actions would have made more sense to leverage worker power. I should add that a lot of laws militate against general strikes, including new measures included in Walker’s Act 10 that would have allowed for immediate firing in the event of a general strike. So it’s not like there were easy decisions made here.