All eyes will be on Wisconsin tonight as the results of that state’s gubernatorial recall election are tabulated. Every major poll since March has Gov. Scott Walker in front, most of them by more than the poll’s margin of error. Among recent polls, he leads by an average of 6.7 percentage points. There has been a last-minute infusion of money by Walker’s labor-union opponents, which may help with get-out-the-vote efforts. That may narrow the final margin and help to dampen the prospects for labor-union reforms in other states, and that just might be their only goal. In any case, it would be very surprising at this point if he were not able to hang on and finish his first term as governor.
Should Walker win, the commentary will immediately turn to the potential impact on Mitt Romney’s chances of pulling off a Badger State upset against President Obama come November. I’ve alluded before to the prospect of a Walker springboard for Romney in Wisconsin. But as we’ve approached election day, I’ve begun to rethink that.
At the risk of being a spoil-sport, I don’t think tonight’s results will have that much of a bearing on the presidential election.
First, and most obviously, Romney and Obama are not Walker and Tom Barrett, the governor’s Democratic opponent in today’s recall. They are different men waging different campaigns on different key issues. Public-sector unions and their collective bargaining rights, or lack thereof, are unlikely to play any more heavily in this presidential election than in previous ones. As in past elections, the largest role for unions will be spending time and money trying to elect the Democrat. Tonight’s recall election is unlikely to change that.
Wisconsin is regarded by some analysts as a toss-up state. But if Romney is to win it, he will have to do so on his own strength or on Obama’s own weakness. If Obama loses states like Wisconsin and Iowa and Ohio, it will have much more to do with the economy and his failure to live up to his own hype than to this recall effort.
What’s more, Republicans have historically had a very tough time in Wisconsin. In the last 10 presidential elections, the GOP candidate has won Wisconsin only along the way to overwhelming landslides in 1972 (Nixon 520 electoral votes, McGovern 17), 1980 (Reagan 489, Carter 49), and 1984 (Reagan 525, Mondale 13). Democrats have won the state in the last six presidential elections by an average of 49.2 percent to 43.7 percent.
Yes, the Wisconsin GOP had a tremendous year in 2010, including Walker’s gubernatorial win and Ron Johnson’s 52-47 defeat of longtime U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold. That year’s results are the main reason the state is included in some lists of swing states. But several states have a history of being Jekyll in presidential elections and Hyde in state contests: See Georgia, for the most part, from 1972 to 2002, and West Virginia today, among others. Even a solid — i.e., 5- to 7-point — win for Walker today is unlikely to mark him as the kind of transcendent politician who can change that record. And, again, he’s not on the ballot in November.
There may be some momentum/enthusiasm to be gained tonight, but even that strikes me as fleeting. It’s unlikely to spread beyond Wisconsin with any significance — or permanence; remember, the election is still five months away. And it’s unlikely to make a difference for Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes, for the reasons already explained. The vast amounts of pro-Walker money raised from outside the state, and the comparatively little anti-Walker money, tells us something about enthusiasm nationally. But I’m not sure it tells us much more than we could already have supposed. It’s the latest data point among many.
Finally, even a surprisingly large win by Walker won’t make me buy the whispers that he’s a dark-horse option to be Romney’s running mate.
So, today’s recall election may tell us more about the future of public-sector labor unions than it does about this November’s election. (In fact, moderate Democrat and blogger Mickey Kaus suggests tonight’s result could actually be more important than the result of the Obama-Romney contest.)
Then again, if Walker were to shock us and win by 10-12 points tonight, we may have to revisit this entire topic tomorrow.
– By Kyle Wingfield