What Happened in Wisconsin?

Short version: The long anticipated recall of Governor Scott Walker fizzled. Walker won the rematch against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett by almost exactly the same margin (53%-46%) as their 2010 race.

Longer version: Split decision. The Democrats appear to have won one of the four state senate recall elections. The Republican hasn’t conceded and a recount seems likely, but if the 779-vote margin holds up, Democrats will control the Wisconsin senate.

So the upshot is that the union-busting Walker has already done will stand for another two years, as will his education cuts and the voter suppression law (if it ultimately survives its court challenge). But Walker won’t get any new shenanigans through the legislature until at least 2013, if then. That’s a big improvement on the way things were when the demonstrations started in February, 2011. Then Walker had solid majorities in both houses and could do pretty much whatever he wanted.

What it means. Everybody has been working hard to spin the result. Republicans want it to be a vindication of Walker’s policies and a sign that Romney can win Wisconsin in the fall. Democrats want to read it either as a rejection of the recall process itself, with little meaning for President Obama or even for Walker’s re-election in 2014, or as a sign of the Citizens United apocalypse, in which massive contributions from the very wealthy can buy a result.

Exit polls. The big reason to doubt Obama is in trouble in Wisconsin is Tuesday’s exit poll: Obama over Romney 51%-44%.

Republicans spin this by claiming the poll had a Democratic bias:

Considering the exit polls the media relied on showed a razor-thin difference between Walker and his Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the logic behind some huge lead for Obama, produced by the same exit polls, melts away. Walker defeated Barrett by a 7-point margin.

Apply that same analysis to Obama’s 7-point lead in the same exit polls and the race in Wisconsin is actually closer to being dead even.

This point is bogus. The early exit poll, reflecting only people who voted in the morning, showed a neck-and-neck race between Walker and Barrett. But Obama’s 7-point lead comes from the final exit poll, which shows Walker winning by about the right margin. (Atlantic’s Molly Ball describes how exit polls work.)

Doubting the process. Walker got 53% of the vote. But according to the exit poll, 70% of the voters were dubious about whether a recall was appropriate at all. Of the 10% who said a recall was “never” appropriate, 94% voted for Walker. 60% believe in recalls “only for official misconduct”; Walker got 68% of their votes.

I think the wording of the choices skewed this result a little. The only other option — that a recall is appropriate “for any reason” — is too loose.  The actual justification for the recall — that compared to Walker’s radical policies, his vaguely conservative 2010 campaign amounted to fraud — might have gotten more than 27% agreement.

Still, it does seem that many voters set Walker a lower bar than he’d face in a regular election. For them, the question wasn’t whether Walker or Barrett would be a better governor, but whether Walker had done anything so egregious that the 2010 election should be overturned.

A good comparison here was the Clinton impeachment. Many people who disliked Clinton’s policies and thought his sexual escapades were shameful nonetheless believed that impeachment was unwarranted.

Not like Ohio. Another instructive comparison is Ohio, where Governor Kasich’s similarly vague cut-spending/create-jobs 2010 campaign led to a similarly radical ALEC agenda after the election. As in Wisconsin, Kasich’s attack on workers’ rights led to a popular backlash.

But Ohio’s constitution allows the voters to go after laws directly. So last November Ohio repealed Kasich’s anti-union S.B. 5 in a referendum by a 61%-39% margin.

In Wisconsin, the voters’ only recourse was to recall the people it had just elected, and the recall couldn’t begin until the officials had served a year in office. As a result, Tuesday’s recall was the culmination of more than a year of political turmoil: Democratic senators escaping to Illinois to deny Walker a quorum, the April 2011 Supreme Court election, and the state senate recall elections of last summer.

So it’s not surprising that some fed-up voters would be angry the recall itself. As one questioner at Netroots Nation’s Wisconsin post-mortem panel commented Friday: “If Wisconsin had had the same mechanism as Ohio, if we’d been able to go directly after the law, we would have gotten the same result.” (I watched the session’s livestream and haven’t re-watched the tape, so my quotations are only approximate. The fuzzily-sourced quotes below are due to my sketchy notes.)

Madison was the first Occupation

The message disconnect. The massive demonstrations in Madison in 2011 were the prototype for Occupy Wall Street. The Wisconsin protests had the same grass-roots, horizontally organized structure and the same independence from parties and candidates. As Harry Waisbren put it at Netroots Nation:

This movement is not about electing Democrats, it’s about ending the corporate subversion of our democracy.

But that led to a problem: The Occupy-style grass-roots movement was great at collecting one million signatures for the recall-Walker petition. But as soon as that petition was filed, the focus of the process necessarily shifted to electing Democrats — precisely what the movement is not about. Election campaigns continue to be top-down political-consultant-driven operations.

Things got worse after the primary, which was won by the centrist Barrett rather than the activists’ favorite candidate, Kathleen Falk. So rather than a referendum to restore workers’ rights, public education, and environmental protections, the campaign became a generic do-over of the 2010 Walker/Barrett race. As one Netroots Nation panelist put it:

Barrett never really focused on the messages that were coming up from the grass roots.

Now, maybe Barrett looked at his polling and decided those issues were losers. Who knows? But as a result, the logic of the recall slipped away. “The narrative was lost,” Waisbren commented. That led directly to the sense of the recall’s illegitimacy that was expressed in the exit poll.

Walker’s money advantage. This was the most expensive campaign in Wisconsin history, and Walker had an overwhelming money advantage. Mother Jones provides this chart:

In addition to these millions, millions more were spent by outside groups like the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity on “issue ads” that couldn’t directly say “Vote for Walker”, but left little doubt who you should support. All told, the Center for Public Integrity estimates that $63.5 million was spent. Walker’s ads started appearing back in November. As one Netroots Nation panelist said:

No one who lives in Wisconsin could doubt that Walker owned the airwaves.

What money can do. A lot of people are skeptical that it’s possible to buy an election. History is full of well-financed candidates who went nowhere, like Rudy Giuliani in 2008 or Phil Gramm in 1996. As Giulani now says:

Campaign spending doesn’t mean anything because you can spend it incorrectly.

Similarly, Rudy could say that being seven feet tall doesn’t mean anything in basketball, because you might be clumsy. But what if you’re not? What can you do with a cash advantage like Walker’s if you spend it correctly?

Obviously, nobody’s going to vote for Walker just because they’ve heard “Vote for Walker” 100 times and “Vote for Barrett” only 10-15 times. Where Walker-level money comes into play isn’t just in repetition, it’s in re-defining reality.

The jobs issue was a key example. The slogan of Walker’s controversial 2011 budget was “Wisconsin is Open for Business“. His agenda’s whole point was that industry would create jobs if the state cut corporate taxes, broke unions, and stopped protecting workers and the environment.

It hasn’t worked. The Wisconsin Budget Project looked at statistics from the Federal Reserve and concluded:

If we use December 2010 as our baseline for analysis, the newly released data indicate that only one other state (Alaska) has experienced slower growth than Wisconsin.

And Bloomberg News — hardly a left-wing outfit — reported:

Wisconsin was ranked last among states and the District of Columbia in economic health in 2011, the first year of Walker’s tenure, according to the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States.

Walker didn’t like those numbers, so he made up his own. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said Wisconsin had lost 33,900 jobs. But Walker’s re-analysis said that Wisconsin had gained 23,321 jobs. And then he blanketed the airwaves with this ad:

As Netroots Nation panelist Emily Mills pointed out, any state could adjust its numbers in the same way:

Whatever metric you use on jobs, if you apply the same metric to every state, Wisconsin is still dead last.

But nobody had millions of dollars to spread that message across the state, so Walker’s message stood.

That’s Wisconsin’s lesson for the post-Citizens-United era: The best use of money in politics is to define reality. Don’t just tell citizens to vote for you, create a virtual world in which voting for you makes sense.

What it means for November. Mitt Romney has a lot of disadvantages: He’s not very likeable. He’s a bad campaigner who has a habit of saying things like “I like to be able to fire people” and “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” He’s a wooden debater who has yet to appear outside the conservative bubble. He has taken a lot of radical right-wing positions that he’ll have a hard time running away from. And he’s the poster boy for income inequality and financiers run amok.

But you have to give Romney this: He knows how to raise vast amounts of money and bury his opponents with it. And he has no scruples about redefining reality.

Limitless amounts of money are going to be spent in the fall. And while Obama is no slouch as a fund-raiser, he’s going to be outspent by a wide margin, especially if you count the corporate-funded outside groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s Crossroads, whose ads I’ve already seen repeatedly during the NBA playoffs.

The bulk of that money isn’t going to be spent saying “Vote for Romney”. It’s going to be used to redefine reality. Millions already believe (falsely) that Obama raised their taxes, that he cut defense, that he isn’t really an American citizen, that he’s secretly Muslim, that the stimulus didn’t create jobs, and on and on and on. By November, millions more will believe other false things that make it logical to support Romney over Obama.

In Wisconsin, Obama currently benefits a little from Walker’s redefinition of reality: If the Wisconsin economy is getting better, maybe Obama isn’t so bad.

But now that Walker is safe until 2014, the up-is-down campaign will reverse itself. Wisconsinites can expect to start hearing that they’re in a depression, that things were never this bad under President Bush, and so on. It will make a difference.

A 7% difference? Too soon to tell.

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  • Doris Smith  On June 11, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    This is my daughter’s take on the recall election in Wisconsin:
    The Walker people filed a petition for an extension of the recall election asking that it be in early June. This was a good tactical choice for them because that meant the election would not happen while people were energized and upset.

    – The Wisconsin legislature passed a Voter ID law that said that a person had to show they had been in residence in Wisconsin 45 days prior to the election. The recall election was held 35 days after the colleges were no longer in session. This effectively eliminated the student vote.

    -Wisconsin state law allows an incumbent to accept unlimited funds. So while Walker could accept funds, Barrett was limited in what he could accept from individual donors. You have already referred to the Mother Jones site about where the money statistics.

    – Robo calls went out posing as AFL-CIO calls telling voters that if they had signed the petition, they had already voted so they did not need to come to the polls and leave room for the many expected voters. Also Milwaukee ran out of ballots.

    – What money buys you is smart market research. The Walker people had several months to test out a lot of messages and they settled on “Recalls are anti-democratic” and they stayed on this message. The anti-Walker did not have the money to test out a succinct voter message.

    So while there was not any evident cheating at the polls, the Walker people had worked out some strategies that worked for them. One good thing was this: the money they spent in Wisconsin would not be used against Obama.

  • Kim Cooper  On June 15, 2012 at 3:10 am

    So, what should we do about this? What’s the solution?


  • By Nuggets of the Week « The Weekly Sift on June 11, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    […] The Wisconsin recall election, of course, but I’ve already about that today. […]

  • By Ch-ch-changes « The Weekly Sift on June 11, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    […] What Happened in Wisconsin? After all that, Scott Walker stays in office. How bad were the results? Should Obama be worried about carrying Wisconsin? Should we all be worried about the unprecedented money Walker raised and spent? And can you really buy an election with that much money? How? […]

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