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Counterintuition of the Day: Is a Walker Loss Bad for Obama?

If you happen to have turned on cable this last month or so, you’re aware that Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, faces a recall election tomorrow against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Walker, along with the GOP and various conservative groups, has massively outspent Barrett and his allies: Walker has personally outraised Barrett $30.5 to $4 million, and has benefited from the majority of the additional $30 million that the outside groups are dropping. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, polls have consistently shown Walker ahead, though the margin appears to have tightened in the last few days. According to a recent PPP poll, Walker is up a mere three points, 50-47, while Barrett is actually up among independents by a 48-46 margin. That means, as the PPP summary notes, that Republican enthusiasm appears to be saving Walker right now: More Republicans are telling pollsters they’re very likely to vote than Democrats are.

Given that a miniscule fraction of Wisconsinites are undecided this point, Barrett’s only real shot at winning is turnout. Amped up voters on both sides will turn out on their own, of course. The trick will be turning out less enthusiastic voters who are nonetheless reliable partisans. And that’s the one place Democrats appear to have the advantage. As best I can tell, groups affiliated with Barrett have spent more than twice as much as Walker and his allies on their get-out-the-vote operations. 

So if Barrett wins by out-hustling Walker despite the disadvantage he faces in money and enthusiasm, how could that hurt Obama? Here’s my thinking: Nationally, the two parties have a bit of a bet going on that’s similar to the one playing out in Wisconsin: Republicans and conservative groups are raising and spending far, far more money overall. But, despite that, Democrats appear to be spending more in absolute terms on organizing their voters. The working hypothesis of both the Obama campaign and outside groups like labor is that they can get a lot more bang for their buck this way and neutralize the Republican cash advantage overall.

If Barrett somehow pulls off a shocker after trailing in the polls, it will be a pretty strong indication that this bet is paying off. I’d guess the Romney forces will redirect more of their money to turnout and spend a bit less on advertising, which could eat away at Obama’s advantage here.

Now obviously this is only going to matter at the margins. Obama, the Democrats, and labor have been organizing on the ground since shortly after the 2010 midterms—it’s not an advantage that’s going to disappear overnight. Likewise, it’s not as if the Romney campaign had never heard of organizing before the Wisconsin recall—they’re clearly investing money there regardless of how tomorrow’s election turns out. Still, in what’s sure to be a close election, a marginal reallocation of resources based on tomorrow’s result could end up mattering quite a bit. If I’m Obama, I’m not sure I want a result that encourages this.

P.S. Having said that, I do think a Barrett win would be better for Obama in Wisconsin, since it’s likely to deter Romney from going all-out in the state, while a Walker win would give Romney hope and probably demoralize Democrats there. 

P.P.S. You could argue that’s what bad for Obama isn’t a Walker loss per se, but the mere fact of the recall election. Both sides will have an opportunity to learn about how their strategic choices are paying off. But, given its money advantage, the GOP is in a better position to shift resources into the alternative strategy. It’s not like Obama and the Democrats are suddenly going to come up with another billion dollars for swing-state ads, after all. But Republicans could theoretically direct tens of millions more to GOTV. 

Follow me on twitter: @noamscheiber