What happened in Wisconsin? Scott Walker and beyond

I am pleased to welcome guest poster, Professor Jim Melcher, political scientist at the University of Maine-Farmington.

Professor Melcher

I grew up a big fan of elections in Wisconsin, and now I have the privilege of studying and teaching about politics for a living.  My students at the University of Maine at Farmington probably all know how the story by heart about how I got hooked on politics in Wisconsin’s capital city when I was five:  I got some campaign buttons, a leaflet on presidential election history, and pictures of presidents on the backs of boxes of Cheerios, and I was hooked. (Parents, be careful about what you get your kids interested in when they’re little!) My parents–now married for 66 years–still live in the same house there where I got my early political education so many years ago, and I have many friends and family back in America’s Dairyland.  So, you can surely imagine that I’ve been following the recent election in Wisconsin rather closely.

The attempt to recall Scott Walker as governor of Wisconsin is now history, and one of the few things people agree on is that it was a remarkable political drama. Astonishing amounts of money were spent, the national media had a field day, pundits offered opinions by the truckload, and huge amounts of passion were expended by both sides. Turnout was staggeringly high, and many locations ran out of voter registration forms and ballots (showing the value of same day voter registration in the process).  The aftermath featured jubilation for the winners and crushing pain for the losing side more intense than all but a few elections. (Many of the recall backers did not seem to realize that Walker’s supporters were in many cases as passionate as they were on the other side–in fact, before the election, a higher percentage of Walker supporters than Walker’s opponents said they were certain to vote).

With such a key election contest that the whole country was watching, it’s inevitable that there would be different explanations for what happened. And, sometimes, people see in elections what they want to see.  Conservatives, naturally, wanted to credit Scott Walker’s policies and his taking on public employee unions. Mitt Romney, campaigning in Iowa, blasted President Barack Obama for not understanding the “lessons of Wisconsin as Romney saw them: that people want less government, and that we shouldn’t hire more teachers, cops, and firefighters as President Obama has proposed.

Equally naturally, liberals (or progressives) had a different explanation. They focused on the large advantage in spending by pro-Walker forces, much of which came from out of state–and much of that by a Koch Brothers backed political organization. Many editorial cartoons played up this theme. To them, it was a sign of the post Citizens United decision world of out of control spending by wealthy interests.

I think there was something else happening that outweighed both of these factors: that this was a recall election. Wisconsin, as one of the states in which the Progressive movement was strongest, was one of the early states to enact recall elections. They’ve had controversial recalls before, votes involving recalls of Democrats, Republicans and nonpartisan school board members.  The most celebrated was the recall in 1996 of Republican state senator George Petak, who changed his position and supported including his county in a regional sales tax district to finance what became Miller Park, now the home of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball club.  Not only was Petak recalled, but the election flipped control of the State Senate. (Personally, as perhaps Maine’s biggest Brewers fan, I’m glad he voted as he did, because the Brewers probably would have called Charlotte, Las Vegas or somewhere else extremely far from Lake Michigan home by now if he hadn’t).

But they’ve never had one like this that went statewide.  Last Tuesday’s vote came in the wake of a year of a rash of recall elections throughout the state directed at state legislative incumbents. (In fact, pending a possible recount, one of the state senate recalls held the same night as Walker’s race may have again flipped the state senate to the Democratic Party).

Many newspaper endorsements in the campaign, most notably the state’s largest paper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, argued not that they were enthralled with everything that Governor Walker had done, but that recall was a very high bar to meet, and the backers of recall hadn’t done enough to make the case that this difficult standard had been met.  So, they endorsed Walker.  Wisconsin and other nearby editorial writers did not grasp well at all how this election would play nationally, because they were so focused on the rights and wrongs of the concept of recall in this case.

I thought the most interesting numbers in the exit polling in this race showed that 60% of voters believed recall was not warranted outside of cases of official misconduct, and 10% believed that recall was never justified.  It is hard to imagine that these percentages were so high before the barrage of recall races 18 months ago, and voters were getting punchy at the end.  The overwhelming majority of voters had made up their minds how they felt about Governor Walker long before the election and many were weary of the ceaseless ads and phone calls (or as one of my Wisconsin Facebook friends said the day before the election, “Just stop calling me!”)

There seemed to be some fear that if this recall succeeded, there would be a never-ending cycle of recall elections back and forth; some Walker supporters, for example, reportedly had threatened to organize a recall campaign against Tom Barrett if he had won. This longstanding decision also throws a great deal of doubt on the hypothesis that the money battle swung the election to Walker. There wasn’t a great deal of movement in attitudes toward Walker through the campaign in spite of his large financial advantage.  What there was were groups who voted more heavily for Walker than one might otherwise have expected. 18% of people saying they planned to vote for Barack Obama, and 38% of union householders, voted for Walker.  (And while Obama’s 7 point advantage in this poll over Mitt Romney is a significant decrease in the percentage of Obama ‘s Badgerland backers from 2008, it’s hard to see that this represents the “message from Wisconsin” Mitt Romney has in mind).

Scott Walker may have underrated the impact of money in his recall election, but I believe he was largely correct on the broader point after the election when he said, “The mayor [his opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett} could have had $50 million more, it wouldn’t have made a difference.  I think if you ask most voters today, everybody knew what was at stake. Everybody knew where I was, they knew what the mayor offered. There was no confusion.”

People in Wisconsin, especially those who supported the recall, are perhaps a bit more confused about trying to figure out the election’s message this week. One of my friends there said to me after the election, “if people were tired of recalls, how could so many sign the petitions?” . The thing is, they signed them before the election, plus people sometimes sign petitions for candidates just to be polite or helpful.  Just over a million signed petitions for Walker’s recall, just short of the numbers that voted against Walker. In fact, turnout for the recall election was higher than the turnout in 2010 when Walker was elected governor. Wariness of the recall process made it difficult for recall supporters to add much to those already committed enough to sign recall petitions.

Here in Maine, some of Governor Paul LePage’s most vocal critics, such as State Senator Cynthia Dill, have called in the past for Maine to enact a recall process much like the one Wisconsin has.  Their irritation with the governor is passionate, not unlike the opponents of Governor Walker (though if anything, the anger against Walker’s policies from his critics has been even sharper than the critics of LePage’s policies have been).

But, they would do well to remember that even with strong sentiment and passion behind a recall effort, not only do one’s opponents frequently have equal passion, but that to win a recall election requires persuading many people who aren’t as passionate on either side that the high burden they seek to justify recall has been met.  In many cases, these voters will decide to hang up on the recall.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.