Democrats and union supporters were dejected Tuesday night as the effort to recall Wisconsin governor Scott Walker failed, and failed fast. The election was called for Walker just about an hour after polls closed, first by NBC, and then successively by the other networks. So what went wrong? And what does it mean for November?
If you ask me, the answer to the second question is, not as much as you might think.
For one thing (and this answers the “what went wrong” question) — Scott Walker was able to emerge victorious in part because of the huge money advantage he took into the race. Walker raised $30 million to fight the recall — outspending Tom Barrett by nearly 8 to 1. Most of that money poured in from outside the state (including from 13 — count ‘em — 13 out of state billionaires…) I’m on all the mailing lists for political stuff, and if I didn’t get 5 emails a day from tea party and other groups supporting Walker, it was a good day. Democrats, meanwhile, didn’t throw the kind of money at the race that Republicans did — and while it’s easy to pin the blame on the DNC. which toddled into the race late, it was really the DGA’s responsibility, as a smarty in my Twitter thread pointed out last night.
Come November, Republicans won’t enjoy the same money advantage in the Badger State. Sure the Koch brothers spent like mad to keep their guy in place. But in the big presidential sweepstakes, their and their corporate friends’ money will be spread all over the country, not specifically concentrated in Wisconsin. Democrats and Republicans will be fighting a much more diffuse battle, with up to 16 or 17 states in play. And it’s hard to imagine the Romney campaign proper, or it’s associated super-PACs, shoveling money into a state where even as Walker beat the recall, exit polls showing a solid majority of those who voted, favor Barack Obama over Romney for president - and which has not voted for a Republican for president since Reagan in ’84. In fact, 18 percent of Walker voters said they favor president Obama for re-election, while Romney got just 5 percent of Barrett voters, and only 67 percent of Walker voters. Jeez. … Meanwhile, the Obama campaign is going to raise a gobsmacking sum of money. They’ll be able to fight the GOP much better than Mr. Barrett.
Another important point — while this was a high turnout election, no special (or midterm) election is going to match the demographics of a presidential race. Younger, ethnic and single women, for whatever reason, just don’t vote in non-presidential races at the rates that older white voters do (the caveat in Wisconsin is that it’s an overwhelmingly non-minority state, so in this case we’re talking more about young and union voters.) They just don’t. So when pundits start writing things like “2012 sure looks like 2010,” I smack my forehead. Yes, special elections in 2012, or any year, look more like 2010 demographically. Duh. Roll a pollster over and let me know if he wakes up and smacks your forehead.
What the election does mean, however, is five very important things.
1. Unions need to rethink their strategy. And I don’t mean fighting to recall walker. On balance, that was a bold, if risky, idea (though polls showed a significant share of voters just didn’t like the idea one bit.) Tepid union (and liberal) support for Barrett was reported from the day of his election, and it’s arguable that the national union movement didn’t go all out, financially, to bounce Walker out in favor of him. That was a mistake, because the Walker win has emboldened conservatives, who think they now have a green light from “the people” to crush unions altogether, the better to usher in one-party government by way of a sea of corporate cash. With unions being the only entity on the Democratic side that can spend like a Koch brother, emboldening Republican governors, who now see they can survive an all-out assault on unions, is not a good move. The exit poll data out of Wisconsin shows that a small majority agreed with Walker’s anti-union reforms, though a majority also have a positive impression of unions. That’s kind of a muddle, but it’s an unhelpful muddle for unions.
2. Democrats need to find a way to get their base voters to see non-presidential elections as important, and to vote in them. Period. Full stop. Tom Barrett won every Demographic he won in 2010, by roughly the same amounts — lower income voters, women, young voters, moderates, college graduates … it’s just clear that their weren’t enough of them at the polls to get Barrett much closer than he got the first time. Walker beat Barrett 52-47 percent in 2010, with about 1.1 million voters to Barrett’s 1 million, and he won the recall by 54 to 45 percent (with 93 percent of precincts reporting) and roughly 1.2 million voters, to Barrett’s 1.o million. By comparison, Barack Obama won Wisconsin 56-42 percent over John McCain in 2008, pulling in about 1.7 million voters to McCain’s 1.3 million. That’s actually not bad math for a recall election, and might constitute historic turnout for a non-presidential race. But the fact remains that Democratic constituencies didn’t make up a large enough share of the vote to carry Barrett over.
3. The president was smart to stay out of the recall. Recall elections are a special, state matter. Presidents don’t belong in the middle of them. Obama gets the benefit of those exit polls, while not alienating anti-recall swing voters and independents, not looking like he’s trampling on a lowly governor from high atop 1600 PA Ave, and he didn’t put the prestige of the office on the line for an effort the AFL-CIO couldn’t be bothered to fully fund.
4. Money does matter in elections. That’s why the Supreme Court, four of whose members are in the utter service of the well-to-do and big corporations, did Citizens United, with the help of Anthony Kennedy, who I think might be a libertarian. Democrats should be warned that November will mean even more money thrown in by the Kochs and their ilk, who now believe they can own the country outright by Christmas, and drilling up Yellowstone park by next Easter.
5. Republicans are energized. Don’t let the fading of the tea party from your television (and the tiny crowds at their events — do they even still do events…?) fool you. Conservatives are loaded for bear this year, and they will vote, and vote in large numbers, even if and when Democrats don’t. That, more than anything, is what Democrats need to remember in November.
Also, read this from Perry Bacon Jr.: “Why Wisconsin isn’t bad news for Obama“