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Stop Forecasting November With Wisconsin's Recall Election

Today’s special election in Wisconsin is definitely historic. The contest, which pits Republican governor Scott Walker against Democrat Tom Barrett, is the denouement of fierce backlash against Walker’s union-stomping policies, and it marks only the third time in U.S. history that a governor has been subject to a recall.

But historical importance doesn’t automatically confer electoral importance, a fact few Beltway-dwellers seem to grasp. And so, we have in the past few days a glut of articles assuring us that “the results will be held up as an omen for the presidential race in the fall”—because the election has rallied dormant Republicans, or motivated Democrats, or caused one side or the other to organize to unprecedented levels, or because of the dreaded party demoralization that could be caused by a narrow loss. (Yesterday, fellow Planker Noam Scheiber eyed today's election. With one exception, I think his projections are mostly fair, for reasons I explain below.)

Let’s examine some of these claims. In real terms, “rallied” and “motivated” means that Democrats now have at their disposal a massive list of voters who signed the recall petition or canvassed on behalf of Barrett, and that Republicans built a parallel network through mailers and phone banks, attracting a volunteer crowd that will presumably prove useful to Romney. “Republicans reported that they made 2 million phone calls in just the first two months of this year,” Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, told me. “In an election in which no more than 3 million will turn out, that’s an awful lot of phone calls.”

It is an awful lot, but as Burden himself says, our capacity to divine whose organizational might will prevail five months from now, when Wisconsinites vote in the presidential election for neither Scott Walker nor Tom Barrett, is limited. On top of that, it’s not as though partisan political organization was unknown to Wisconsin before the recall drive. “Elections have been intensely polarized and very competitive here going back 12 years,” said Paul Maslin, a political consultant working with Walker’s opposition. “This is just an extension of what’s already happening here. There’s nothing profound, or unique, or game-changing going on.” (Indeed, although today's turnout numbers may be staggering—the state election authority anticipates that 2.6 to 2.8 million Wisconsinites—last summer’s off-cycle Senate recall elections drew 90 percent of the state’s 2010 turnout.)

The scramble to organize voters for this recall might have left Republicans with a slight edge. Burden points out that Republicans usually trail Democrats in field organization, as conservative voters are scattered across the Wisconsin suburbs and exurbs. Republican activism may have been stoked earlier in the presidential election cycle than it would have otherwise by the threat posed to Walker. But Democrats swear up and down, too, that the recall has united the disparate elements of their party. One of the largest figures in the rank-and-file movement against Walker, for instance, has been Randy Bryce—the political point man for a private union, Ironworkers Local 8, who’s been key in helping organize public union opposition. Bryce tells me that he’s been able to connect with and rely upon union workers from across the state throughout the recall election.

But, as the saying goes, the plural of anecdote is not data. Noam correctly points out that these organizations could become critical down the line, when Romney and Obama are making big resource allocation decisions, and when the dust has settled enough for both sides to observe how their strategic choices are paying off. But the fact remains that we don’t know right now the relative strength of the red and blue networks—and today won’t be particularly clarifying. 

Others are predicting party demoralization should the Democrats fall short in their attempt to dump Walker. I tend not to buy this, not least because there isn't much decent data on the effects of special election results on partisan cheer. Charles Franklin, the director of the Marquette Law School poll, observed that after Democrats lost an intensely political race for state Supreme Court justice last April, they still turned out in droves to vote in the recall elections of several state senators just a few months later. And, after Democratic voters narrowly failed to reclaim the Wisconsin Senate in that race, the petition to recall Scott Walker gathered twice the number of signatures needed for approval in January. With a president and an open U.S. Senate seat both on the ballot, in a cycle when partisan control of the Senate could change hands, there’s little reason to think that a slim loss five months ago would depress turnout among the kind of ardent partisans who go to the polls for a special election. “At the end of the day, life goes on, and politics goes on,” Maslin agreed. “Nothing’s going to stop on June 6.”

It’s a testament to the Beltway mindset that in hashing today's recall vote, few outside of Wisconsin have shown much interest in parsing what the election actually means for Wisconsin. If Walker wins, he won’t face a reelection for two-and-a-half more years. Based on a video clip distributed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, there is reason to think that his next legislative campaign might be for anti-labor, “right-to-work” laws. On the other hand, even if Tom Barrett does win, it is unclear whether Democrats, unions, and their new ally can roll back Walker’s devastating anti-union measures with a legislature and state Supreme Court controlled by conservatives. As Maslin put it, if the Democrats lose, “the problem is not going to be that we are demoralized. … It’s going to be that we lost.”

That’s not to say that the bitter recall election is a self-contained phenomenon. Quite the opposite. It raises a whole host of scary questions about the power of out-of-state money in local contests, about the abilities of less-moneyed groups to overcome tidal waves of television advertising, about whether Democrats will be further cowed from aligning with unions, and about the future of public labor unions in Wisconsin, to name a few. But sadly, for those of us who traffic in premonitions of November, the only thing that Tuesday’s vote for governor of Wisconsin will actually decide is who will be the next governor of Wisconsin.