Why Walker Won, and What It Means For Obama

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It should not surprise those who participated in last night’s live blog of the Scott Walker recall election  to hear me say that, contrary to what much (most?) of the pundits are saying today, I believe Walker’s victory has very little national implications.  In fact, I believe his victory was rooted almost entirely in local factors pertaining to Wisconsin that will have little bearing on the 2012 presidential election.  I’ve discussed some of these points in the latest professor pundits’ video with my colleague Bert Johnson, but I want to develop them here.

The most important point to realize about yesterday’s election is that it was, in essence, a replay of Walker’s 2010 victory over Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. As this chart shows, the breakdown of voters indicate that Walker depended on almost exactly the same coalition that voted him into office 19 months ago.  The only significant change was an increase in turnout – about 2.4 million people voted in yesterday’s election – a shade under 60% of eligible voters –  easily besting turnout in 2010, but coming nowhere close to turnout in presidential election years.   In short, this was a hotly contested election, but despite the influx of outside money, the role of issue activists, and the extensive media coverage, the underlying fundamentals did not change appreciably from 2010.  Despite all the hype, Wisconsin voters proved relatively immune to outside influences.  In short, this was deja vu all over again.

Note that the media made much of the increase in turnout among those whose family included a union member from 2010, but what they failed to recognize is that Walker won the vote of more than a third of union households.  One reason he did so, I believe, is because most Wisconsin voters did not see the recall movement as an appropriate mechanism for responding to what was essentially a political dispute. Fully 60% of Wisconsin voters, according to exit polls, believe recall votes are only appropriate for reasons related to misconduct in office.  Walker had pushed precisely this point during the recall campaign, and evidently it resonated with most Wisconsin voters.

The second factor in Walker’s favor is that during the last year, Wisconsin’s unemployment rate – already below the national average – had actually dropped from 7.5% to 6.7%.  So he had a strong economic record on which to run – a record that looks even better compared to the national unemployment record.  We can debate how much of the reduction in unemployment is attributable to Walker, but the bottom line is that most Wisconsin voters felt they were better off, economically, under his stewardship.

Finally, Walker benefitted by who he was running against: public sector labor unions.  The plain fact is that labor unions – never as strong in the United States as in other nations – have been steadily losing members and political clout for decades.  In this respect, Walker chose his enemy well.  Only 17% of those who voted in the recall election were union members.  While it is true that, based on exit polls, 51% of Wisconsin voters have a favorable opinion of unions for government workers, 52% of voters approved of how Walker “handled collective bargaining”.   Similarly, 52% of voters approved of “limiting collective bargaining for government workers.”   That issue was the heart of the recall campaign, and in the end Walker was on the right side of the issue, politically speaking.

But, you ask, what about the influx of outside money?   Didn’t the fact that Walker’s supporters outspent Barrett by about 8-1 indicate that outside money made the difference here?  I don’t think so.  Consider that fully 86% of Wisconsin voters had made up their minds regarding their vote prior to May 1.  That means the huge influx of money, and the massive advertising campaigns during the last month had almost no persuasive effect, although they may have influenced turnout.  In the end, however, despite the huge influx of money, and the spending disparity, this election was almost an identical reprise of the 2010 contest.   Progressives may comfort themselves by saying they lost because they were outspent.  But the evidence, in my view, does not support that assertion.

Let me be clear – I am not saying that yesterday’s results have no national implications. I suspect they send a clear signal to governors in other states who are grappling with budget deficits that attacking collective bargaining rights may not be as politically costly as they once thought.  It is also probably the case that Romney made decide that Wisconsin – which Obama won easily in 2008 – is now a potential battleground state worth investing time and money in.  But keep in mind that yesterday’s exit polls showed Obama besting Romney by 51%-44%.  That suggests that while Republicans may have made inroads in Wisconsin, this is still a state that leans Democratic in presidential elections.  It is not even clear to me that we can classify this as a battleground state as yet.

In the end, what I am cautioning against is the type of reaction typified by this article claiming that Walker’s win reshaped the presidential electoral map, or Romney’s claim that the Wisconsin results will reverberate outside the state.  Despite the extensive media coverage, I think that the recall election in Wisconsin is primarily a local affair with predominantly local implications, and that efforts to paint it otherwise are ignoring the evidence.

So, who is the big loser in yesterday’s recall election? In my view, it is the pundits who persist in drawing national lessons from what was essentially a local affair.

One Response to Why Walker Won, and What It Means For Obama

  1. Zach Drennen says:

    Good point about how the voters feel this was essentially a waste of time and money. In the long run this result may be good for stability in that it will make people second guess before launching a recall election without serious cause.

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