The Wisconsin Recall: Campaign Finance Comes Front-and-Center Yet Its Effects are Surprisingly Uncertain; the Connection of Policy and Partisanship is Subtler But Undeniable

Scott Walker has survived the recall effort in Wisconsin, with about 53.2% of the vote to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s 46.3%.  Early reports that turnout in the Wisconsin Gubernatorial Recall Election exceeded 60% turned out to be off; voter turnout in absolute numbers was almost exactly halfway between that in the 2010 Midterm Elections and that in the 2008 Presidential Election.  (To be clear, that’s nothing to scoff at for a special election.)  While Wisconsin voters didn’t approve of Governor Walker effectively ending the collective bargaining powers of the Badger State’s public employee unions, they have long distinguished between the unpopular policy itself and their feelings about Walker overall.  Walker has been leading Mayor Barrett since the 2 were 1st matched-up in the polls.

This is not to say there was no political blowback from Governor Walker’s attack on public employee unions.  Last August, recall efforts were launched for 6 Republican State Senators (and in retaliation, 2 Democratic State Senators) that resulted in 2 Democratic pickups in the State Senate, bringing the Republicans down to a dangling 17-16 majority there.  While that result was discouraging–Democrats had expected to take back the State Senate–it wasn’t profoundly-so, as Wisconsin law only permits recalls of elected officials who have been in office for at least 1 year.  This meant that the 2 recalls of Republican State Senators had actually occurred in Senate Districts the Republicans held through their low-ebb of the 2008 elections.  That plus the fact that Governor Walker was polling in the 40s–where an incumbent officeholder below the President is inherently-vulnerable–made it look as if Wisconsinites had soured on Republicans.

But the moment the actual, corporeal Democratic contenders for the Gubernatorial Recall stood up to announce their candidacies for the race, Governor Walker polled ahead of all of them.  Mayor Barrett made the most-formidable challenge in the advance polling, but Walker still had a significant lead.  Barrett was also the losing Democratic Gubernatorial candidate from 2010; Democrats would essentially have to hope that Wisconsin had a sufficient underlying Progressive majority (or relatedly, sufficient fatigue with Governor Walker’s habit of legislating a right-wing wish list) to carry Mayor Barrett simply because he had a D by his name.

Not only didn’t this happen, but in an election with 20% higher turnout Governor Walker almost exactly reproduced his 52.29%-46.52% victory over Barrett in 2010.  We can put a fork in the effort to expel Governor Walker from office for his anti-labor provocations, it’s done.  But why did this (um, not) happen?

A Politico contributor had a simple and unexciting but revealing explanation for Walker’s rather-solid victory.  Mark Blumenthal and Ariel Edwards-Levy follow the blunt numbers of the exit polls: Democratic challenger Barrett did in fact stimulate more new voters to turn-out for the recall.  But Governor Walker correspondingly turned-out more of his existing supporters from 2010 than Barrett did.  (Tangential to their analysis, it didn’t help that Wisconsinites in a recent poll overwhelmingly opined that they felt recall elections should only be arranged for elected officials found guilty of corruption or other criminal offenses.)  The proportion of voters self-identifying as Conservative in this exit poll (35%) was essentially sustained from the Conservative surge year of 2012 (37%), and in either event much higher than in the higher-turnout 2008 Presidential election (31%).  So while Mayor Barrett was clearly the beneficiary of a lot of provoked anger over Governor Walker’s campaign to weaken public employee unions, the latter simply was more-effective at rallying his troops–and Wisconsinites in general never really embraced the idea that Governor Walker should be punished for pushing-through an ideological agenda, even though a majority disagrees with parts of that agenda.

Almost every Wisconsinite seemed to have an opinion about the changes to the law governing public employee unions, or of the Governor.  A clear majority of those polled about the Governor in general tended to accept his narrative that his policies had punched a hole in unemployment (its decline was actually rather mild considering Wisconsin’s relatively-low unemployment rate when Walker took office) and put the State’s fiscal house in order (though the State only really faced a fiscal emergency because of the Governor’s rather aggressive tax cuts).

Let’s talk about super PACs–that is, virtually-unregulated bundles of money that private citizens (or corporations, or labor unions, or special-interest groups) can raise on behalf of candidates–so long as the super PAC and the candidate are officially unaffiliated–for office thanks to a 2-year-old ruling of the United States Supreme Court.  Conservative super PACs supporting Governor Walker raised millions of dollars “in support of” his re-election campaign.  As much as $80 million was spent advertising for the candidates in the Recall, a ridiculously-large sum by historical standards for the Badger State.  Super PACs out-spent in Governor Walker’s favor by about $30.5 million–$4 million.  If you count contributions by traditional soft-money groups like Planned Parenthood and unions like the AFL-CIO or the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Walker’s fundraising advantage is mitigated somewhat–but no one seems to believe Barrett was in Walker’s league in campaign cash in this strange episode.

The Liberal Ironist is among those who thinks this is a bad precedent for democracy–but not for the reason you’ve likely heard repeated.  There is an inevitable aspect of diminishing returns with all the private money being spent on elections: Set an election awash in more than a certain amount of cash, and more dollars probably no longer impact the result.  It’s downright weird that, with a somewhat differently-composed electorate, a recall election held in June 2012 turned-out almost exactly like the November 2010 Gubernatorial Election.  But all the pundits have their 3rd degree on the policies at stake in Wisconsin, and all their 3rd degrees are the same.

This is a dark day for organized labor, they say–all while maintaining a solemn and rather dully-misguided aloofness to these developments (well, there was the visible exception of CNN’s empathetic John King). The narrative continues thus: This is not merely a political victory for Scott Walker, but an object-lesson in Conservative optimism for other Republican Governors who want to take on the public employee unions.  Both advocates of business and labor were spoiling for a political contest in Wisconsin, and both sides protested and both sides articulated their principled theories of government and both sides raised a lot of money and hurled attack ads at the other’s candidate.  In the end, business won (on this issue, in Wisconsin).  But could we have a lot more of this kind of bottom-up polarization of public policy?  I doubt this is a good thing.  Conservatives hated to see States and cities ban smoking in bars, or banning trans fats in junk food; policy diffusion of this kind sometimes hits like-affiliated legislatures like a fad.  In this age of ideologically-programmatic parties and “freedom of speech” somehow embodying as millions of dollars from the rich or from national special-interest groups, policy diffusion could occur as a result of a series of high-stakes contests playing-out over the course of a whole electoral cycle in various cities and States, perhaps sometimes aggregating through the national parties to the Federal level.  Can it still be Federalism as we know it if Republicans and Democrats feel compelled by their respective partisan winning coalitions to imitate each other’s controversial legislative initiatives?

Ah, yes: President Obama was disengaged from this particular contest.  He rather-shrewdly manipulated the pregnant pause of a controversy-driven media to dramatize (hype?) a shift on the issue of gay marriage (from sympathizing with gay marriage advocates but considering it a State issue to supporting gay marriage but considering it a State issue); why did he not do the same for labor?  The best explanation I’ve heard is that the President saw the writing on the wall–that Walker’s majority in Wisconsin was unmovable–and that he didn’t want to expose himself to further Republican criticism as a defender of status-quo government in a case where he didn’t think he could positively-effect policy.  Maybe I buy that.  It wouldn’t be the 1st time the President’s seemingly-confounded inaction proved to be a discreet conservation of political capital.  But here’s what we all know: Collective-bargaining rights for public employees are abolished in all but name in the 1st State to unionize its public employees.  This occurred without comment from a sitting Democratic President whose policy legacy will be dominated by his principled confrontations with Congressional Republicans over how to “right-size” government programs and benefits in an age where global commercial competition and computerization has constantly-threatened the traditional industrial employment base, and now puts professional jobs at a premium.  The President may have prudently spared himself an alienating wade into a battle that could not be won and would have played into the Republican narrative about his predictably-Democratic character and affiliations.  But Governor Romney has embraced the Walker-Kasich-Daniels “free labor” model–haltingly at 1st, with that characteristic Romney toe in the water to feel the temperature, now enthusiastically as that he learns he won’t alienate the median voter in the strategic Badger State.  So President Obama has avoided pain and Governor Romney has pursued a narrative opportunity; it’s the latter who has made a relative gain.

In the meantime, the State of Wisconsin has been subject to a variety of Conservative reforms.  Most Wisconsinites apparently find these tolerable, and as a result Scott Walker continues to be a darling among the Republican Governors.  Like Bob McDonnell (Virginia), Mitch Daniels (Indiana), and Bobby Jindal (Louisiana), Governor Walker is 1 of a debatable list of Republican Governors, mostly from the South and Midwest, who all apparently want their States to resemble each other.  The Liberal Ironist finds the evidence that outside money was able to buy an election in Wisconsin inconclusive; what is evident is that partisans of both parties–the Republicans are the greater offenders but this is a series of contests, not soliloquies–have proved their capacity nationalize the policies they pursue on the State or local level, as the Scott Walkers try to make names for themselves and the opposition activists try to take them down, and everyone demands that the Barack Obamas and the Mitt Romneys offer their opinions.  The Liberal Ironist asks: Is the whole story really that anti-democratic forces spent tens of millions and bought Governor Walker a governor’s mansion he already occupied, doing an end-run against Liberal activists and thus destroying democracy in America just last night? or are we sorting all political questions into a Yes and a No with national implications, when there may be a hundred different things our State and local governments can do?

Many of my fellow Democrats look at Wisconsin and see Wounded Knee; the Liberal Ironist sees the Scopes Monkey Trial, and while this event may portend the collapse of the public employee unions as a political force, I’ve also begun to get a sense that we political junkies think too readily in units called “events.”  Policy debates become scripts of contention; maybe this is what money is doing to politics.

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