Monday, June 11, 2012

Wisconsin Autopsy: The Cognitive Dissonance polls and how Walker's victory could actually help Obama in November

Last year, the recall results were open to interpretation. Not so this June 5. Last August and more recently, I wrote that the recall of Walker might be a danger to the Democrats, and that the party could face serious repercussions in November. But am I correct? Let's look at the other side of the coin -- in what ways could the recall have helped the Democrats? Are people misreading some of the numbers and using the recall as too much of a harbinger of doom? 

Before jumping into that, let's note a couple of facts. According to exit polls, 60% of voters thought the recall should be limited to misconduct (aka, the judicial recall) and another 10% was wholly opposed to a recall. The punditocracy (membership pending) and especially the Democratic Party leaders are pushing this point to explain the results of the recall. But what's very interesting about these numbers is not that 70% of voters feel the recall should be limited -- it's that 47% voted against Scott Walker. Obviously, a very large percentage of voters who claim the recall should be limited didn't vote that way and still cast ballots to kick out Walker. 

This cognitive dissonance is at the heart of the future debate of the recall (I wouldn't necessarily call it hypocritical -- it's a vote and there has to be some focus on impact, even if you disagree with the event itself). You can be sure that if the parties were reversed (a Democrat being recalled), we would have seen the vast majority of the Republicans who claim they oppose the recall voting in favor of removing Barrett (the exact dynamic of the Gray Davis recall). Look at Walker himself -- he's signed recall petitions in the past for policy reasons. This is just how the recall works. The question is when voters are claiming that only officials guilty of misconduct should be recalled, do they really mean that the standard of misconduct includes belonging to another party or voting differently than the voter wanted? All evidences points to yes.

The other kind of funny result is the cost issue. For good reason, blowing tax money on votes resonates with voters. However, Wisconsin may actually be a complete counter-example. The ROI on the recall was fantastic -- This maybe the single best PPP of alltime. Unlike building stadiums and corporate tax breaks, Wisconsin's recall turned out to be a profit center (at least $125 million in campaign expenditures, most of it from out of state sources, at a state tax cost of under $30, maybe under $25 million). Yes, not the best way to think of the recall, but wow, what a return.

Now, let's look at the other points. The unions were quite obviously the big losers here. They spent big, and not only did they lose the general election, perhaps more revealing is that they got badly defeated in the primary. The wanted Falk; voters almost overwhelming went with Barrett. They gambled big, and the lost big. If they had taken less of a gamble -- just gone for the three Senate seats (the Fitzgerald seat recall seems like it was not a union focus), maybe this works out well? They get their blocking majority in the Senate, and walk home temporary winners. I realize the Senate seat is of limited value. Thanks to a brutal gerrymander, the Senate may well be lost to the party in November (and, keep the rag away from your face on that one -- as in other states, the failure to pass redistricting reform blows up in one of the parties' faces). But they are stopping everything -- in fact, because of the victory, the Senate might not meet again this year. And even if they had take the Governorship, while very valuable, they had a limited ability to change the legislation passed earlier this year -- they had no hope of getting anything through the Republican-dominated Assembly.

Due to all this, the Wisconsin Democrats have a problem. As I mentioned voters might blame the party for costing the state money and effort in the recall (even though it probably ranks among the best state investments ever) -- even voters who supported the recall might changed their mind post-facto. This is where the Democrats really might face a problem. They are running in heavily gerrymandered districts and the Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin might face some of the backlash for their support of the recall.

But that doesn't mean this hurts the national Democrats. I'm about as steeped in this subject as anyone, but from what I've seen, nationally, this will be a blip on the radar, long forgotten by the end of the summer. By the end of the week, it was already surpassed by Obama's economy gaffe. The mass of voters outside of Wisconsin --especially the swing-type voters who decide elections -- weren't paying attention. For them, this is another in the small Big Mo moments, and likely, there will be a hundred of those before this race is done.

So, for Barack Obama, I believe we are just talking about whether he could lose Wisconsin itself. And here, I think we could see that the recall might have been as a setback for the Romney campaigns hopes of taking Wisconsin or (more likely) forcing Obama to spend a lot of money defending the state. Generally, this story  has been buried in the news. The problem is that the reports fail to examine the basic facts of the turnout numbers -- to my mind, even though it was the highest voter turnout in Wisconsin history, they were disappointing. The GAB had expected 2.6-2.8 million. 2.5M that showed up. Yes, this was more than 2010. This is not at all a surprise. As I've mentioned before, turnout is generally lower in a special election than in a regular election. However, when it is something monumental -- like Gray Davis, or like the Scott Brown special election -- turnout might be higher. And so it was -- close to the same percent raise as in the Gray Davis recall (18%). (See here for why I thought turnout was not going to be the deciding factor).

This may seem encouraging to Republicans, but it shouldn't be. This number was much less than in either 2008 or 2004. In both of those election, turnout was about 3 million voters. So, we are missing half a million voters.

Walker's campaign was flooded with money, and they used it to the maximum effect. There's no way Romney is going to spend a fraction of what Walker spent in Wisconsin. Walker's result may be the effective ceiling for what Romney can expect in the state. And that will not be good enough to win it alone in November. That's not to say that Romney won't take Wisconsin. It just won't be the deciding state. It would be a "me too" state that comes along and pulls him not over the 270 electoral margin, but over the 300 or 320 margin. 

The other important point is the unions. They are chastised about this result. This may seem a negative, but for Obama, it could be a big positive. They are now on the leash. What do I mean? Both parties have interest groups that push them in one direction or another. Usually, one of the trickiest parts of the run for the presidency is tacking to the center while keeping the interest groups (who are pushing you to the extremes) appeased. This will be a problem for Romney, as the Tea Party supporters are still exercising their political muscle (witness Dick Lugar). The Tea Party members are coming out for Romney no matter what, but will they push him into saying some impolitic things? Obama will have the same pressure, but he may feel more emboldened to shrug it off. Yes, he has to motivate this dispirited base (the recall probably sapped their energy, which was another mark against holding the recall). But fear of the result of the last election might be its own motivator.


  1. Baldwin's position is especially hard to decipher because she's conceded that the message of the recall is that voters don't like recalls.

    But she's also said she's disappointed in the outcome, and that the people who voted for the recall can't give up. Does that mean she wants the voters to vote against their wishes, or activists to try to thwart the majority of voters, or something else that's not clear?

    I agree about Obama carrying the state fairly easily, but I think Baldwin will have a tough time if she faces Thompson, and Thompson won't have any trouble reminding Baldwin that she's twisted in knots on this issue.

  2. Good article -- thanks for sharing. I do think the argument that voters don't like recalls is simply a way to spin the results. 47% of people voted in favor of the recall, and if the parties were reversed, I bet at least 47% of those voting in favor of Walker would have voted to kick out a Governor Barrett.