Street Corner Soapbox: Making heads or tails of gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin

Category:  Street Corner Soapbox
Thursday, June 7th, 2012 at 10:43 AM
Street Corner Soapbox: Making heads or tails of gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin  by Jay Stevens

Everybody's scrambling to interpret Tuesday's gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin, a replay of the 2010 election between Republican Governor Scott Walker and Democratic challenger and Milwaukee Mayor, Tom Barrett. Walker won the recall election by 8 points.

Walker, you may recall, was the guy who steamrolled a bill through the Wisconsin state legislature that prevents state workers from engaging in collective bargaining -- essentially crippling them from negotiating their own pay and benefits. It's a pretty radical bill aimed at killing public-sector unions, and unmistakably conservative, and set off a firestorm of protest and organized labor activism.

Conservatives were quick to crow over the election results. Some saw trouble for President Barack Obama in the upcoming presidential election -- Wisconsin, after all, has gone Democratic in previous presidential elections and is considered a "blue" state. Others see in Walker's win a defeat of the idea of organized labor, maybe even of liberalism itself. Liberals, too, were quick to react. Markos Moulitsas pointed to exit poll data that showed Obama had an 8-point lead among Wisconsin voters over Mitt Romney, even as they preferred Scott Walker. Others pointed to the wild sums of money Scott Walker raised for his campaign, outspending Barrett and his union allies seven-to-one.

The exit poll numbers tell a tale that is much, much less sexy than any of these narratives. To wit: most that voted in 2010 supported the same candidate in the recall election. Those that didn't vote in 2010, but voted in the recall election, broke to Barrett 53 to 45 percent. The big difference was turnout. Fewer 2010 Barrett supporters showed up at the polls. And you could blame young voters, too -- likely, summer break for university students impacted the election.

In short, nothing radical happened on Tuesday. The same people that voted for Scott Walker in 2010 voted for him again this week.

If there is a take-home message, it's that people actually do like their partisanship. They do like identifying themselves as Republicans and Democrats and fighting it out like mad, no matter how inane or radical or uncivil their elected leaders -- like Scott Walker -- get. You get the sense that Wisconsin voters automatically lined up behind their self-identified leader and came up with reasons to support their message. Republicans cheered Walker's attacks on unions -- ignoring the greater danger of corporate control of government and the declining power of ordinary Americans over the economy and government. Democrats backed Barrett -- but without addressing the very real problems of government inefficiencies.

Ironically enough, while Republicans will interpret these results as a full-on approval of some of their worst policies -- ensuring they will spread to a state near you! -- Democrats will shy away from their progressive values and continue shifting to the right, discouraging its base further still in elections where turnout rules the day, turning the doom-and-gloom talk about liberalism into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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