Molly Redden suggests that today’s vote in Wisconsin bears no clear relation to November’s presidential election. I beg to differ.
The Wisconsin recall election is to the 2012 general election as the Spanish Civil War was to World War Two—not necessarily a harbinger of the final outcome but rather a preview of strategies and tactics. As such, we’ll get early evidence bearing on some questions that will be important in the fall.
Can a labor-intensive ground game match a cash-intensive air war? The campaign strategies of Team Obama and Team Romney track closely with those of their respective candidates in Wisconsin. Republican-oriented groups outside Scott Walker’s official campaign are pouring tens of millions of dollars into television advertisements. Tom Barrett’s forces, meanwhile, are countering with an emphasis on the ground-game: old-fashioned door-knocking that began with soliciting signatures on the recall petition and never stopped. If Walker prevails, the divide is sure to only widen, as right-leaning Super PACs will find it even easier to raise huge gobs of money for the presidential campaign.
How strong is organized labor in a traditionally labor-friendly state? While private-sector unions have withered in recent decades, public-sector unions have grown substantially and now constitute a cornerstone of the Democratic coalition. If Walker can survive after frontally attacking them, other Republican governors with big budget deficits may decide that fortune favors the brave. Conversely, the finger-pointing already noticeable among Democrats will intensify.
How potent are charges of “divisiveness” and “extremism”? Barrett’s closing argument characterizes the consequence of Walker’s program as a civil war that pits worker against worker and neighbor against neighbor—a betrayal of Wisconsin’s traditions of comity civility. Walker counters that his tough medicine was necessary and is already showing results in job growth and a budget balanced without tax increases. If Walker prevails, look for Mitt Romney to cite Wisconsin as evidence that he can get the economy moving with business-friendly policies and solve our deficit problems with spending cuts alone.
How will Walker do with voters who regard themselves as moderate or independent? There’s no doubt that his agenda has invigorated the conservative base of Wisconsin’s Republican Party. But the state also has a fair number of voters who may think that Walker went too far, acted without adequate consultation, and used unnecessarily harsh rhetoric—the sorts of people who administered a mid-course rebuke to Ohio’s governor John Kasich. We’ll see how many of them will swallow their doubts along with Walker’s bitter medicine. If enough do, look for movement conservatives to intensify their pressure on Romney not to change course.
How much like the general election will the recall contest be? In 2008, when Obama defeated McCain by 56.2 to 42.3 percent, the two-party turnout totaled 2.9 million. In 2010, when Walker defeated Barrett by 52.3 to 46.5 percent, the two-party vote was 2.1 million. The closer tonight’s turnout comes to the last presidential election’s, the more the outcome can serve as a leading indicator for the fall.
Is Wisconsin really in play? After Obama’s 14-point victory, it’s hard for many Democrats to believe that it is. Pundits are fond or repeating that the state hasn’t gone Republican since the 1984 Reagan landslide. But recall that Kerry defeated Bush by only 0.4 percent of the popular vote and that Gore prevailed by only 0.2 percent. 2008 might be an outlier, and Wisconsin still might be a purple state. If Walker prevails, the Romney camp will have no choice but to regard it as such and to make a maximum effort to wrest it from Obama’s column this fall. And the Obama campaign would have little choice to respond in kind.
So while tonight’s results won’t predict what will happen on November 6, they will yield useful insights into the emerging contours of the 2012 campaign. Stay tuned.