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Three Takeaways From the Recall Vote

Three Takeaways From the Recall Vote

By Sean Trende - June 6, 2012


The Democrats' attempt to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker came to an end Tuesday night, as the incumbent increased his victory margin beyond his five-point 2010 win over Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. There are three important takeaways from this:

1) The results don't tell us much about 2012 . . . Basically, this spin from progressive sites right now has some truth to it (except that this is somehow good news for President Obama). This is a special election, held in June, to recall a governor. Special elections have notoriously poor track records predicting general election outcomes, and the presidential electorate will likely look different (and more Democratic) than this one.

In particular, we might recall the most recent recall of a governor -- that of California’s Gray Davis in 2003. Republicans took Arnold Schwarzenegger’s win in that election as a sign that President Bush coulmore about Davis’s unpopularity and the Governator’s charisma as national events.

Similarly, it’s important to keep in mind that “recall fatigue” almost certainly played a role here. Exit polls suggest that supermajorities of voters thought that recalls should only be used in cases of corruption, or not at all. Walker’s campaign certainly played to that sentiment. A large number of voters might not have been crazy about the incumbent, but they thought that he should be given a chance to complete his term. When they go to the polls in November, these types of voters are very much in play for the president.

2) . . . but the results do tell us something about 2012. At the same time, turnout exceeded that of the 2010 gubernatorial race, and this was a high-profile election effort. In other words, it was anything but your typical, under-the-radar special election.

Moreover, it’s important for what didn’t happen. In early 2011, many commentators believed that Republicans were alienating white working-class voters and rejuvenating labor unions. The enthusiasm displayed at the Madison protests in March and April of last year certainly seemed to jibe with this interpretation.

But Republicans apparently got a shot in the arm as well, and we ended up with an electorate that looked more like the one from 2010 than from 2008. This, of course, is consistent with what we’re seeing in national polls: a race that looks like 2004, possibly in reverse.

We should also note that the pollsters saw a narrow Obama lead in the state. But they also understated Scott Walker’s victory margin pretty consistently, so the state may well be close to a tie. This view is actually bolstered by the exit polls: The ones that showed a tied Walker-Barrett race also showed the president up 10 points. With Walker’s lead expanding well beyond a tie, the president probably starts his campaign with a one- or two-point lead in this state, at least among the recall electorate.

Now, this also might be as good as it gets for Republicans, and again the 2012 general electorate will probably be more Democratic than this one. At the same time, Obama doesn’t want a low-to-mid-single-digit win in the Badger State. That would suggest a very close race nationally. Remember, he won the state by 14 points in 2008 while winning nationally by eight, so anything less than a six-point lead in the state is not a great sign for him.

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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