Democrats and the Wisconsin Recall Election: Winning by Losing?

As Wisconsin voters stream to the polls today in the Gov. Scott Walker recall election, most commentators are warning that a Walker win would be a disaster for the left. The conventional wisdom has it that a vote to leave the embattled Republican governor in office would deal a huge blow to unions nationwide and threaten Obama’s chances of winning Wisconsin, and the presidency, in November.

A few hopeful pundits are taking these Chicken Littles to task. If Walker pulls off the victory tonight, they say, all is not lost. The sky won’t fall. Things might in fact look a little sunnier for the Democrats and the American left.

How in the world could anyone claim that a Walker win could be a positive development for the Democrats? Here is Noam Scheiber yesterday in the New Republic, explaining how a Walker loss might lead to an improved Republican strategy in the fall:

Given that a miniscule fraction of Wisconsinites are undecided this point, Barrett’s only real shot at winning is turnout. Amped up voters on both sides will turn out on their own, of course. The trick will be turning out less enthusiastic voters who are nonetheless reliable partisans. And that’s the one place Democrats appear to have the advantage. As best I can tell, groups affiliated with Barrett have spent more than twice as much as Walker and his allies on their get-out-the-vote operations.

So if Barrett wins by out-hustling Walker despite the disadvantage he faces in money and enthusiasm, how could that hurt Obama? Here’s my thinking: Nationally, the two parties have a bit of a bet going on that’s similar to the one playing out in Wisconsin: Republicans and conservative groups are raising and spending far, far more money overall. But, despite that, Democrats appear to be spending more in absolute terms on organizing their voters. The working hypothesis of both the Obama campaign and outside groups like labor is that they can get a lot more bang for their buck this way and neutralize the Republican cash advantage overall.

If Barrett somehow pulls off a shocker after trailing in the polls, it will be a pretty strong indication that this bet is paying off. I’d guess the Romney forces will redirect more of their money to turnout and spend a bit less on advertising, which could eat away at Obama’s advantage here.

This is Scheiber’s reasoning, in a nutshell: a successful Democratic effort in Wisconsin today would reveal to Republicans just how valuable get-out-the-vote efforts are, and the GOP would redouble its turnout efforts to strip Obama of his advantage in that department in the fall.

But Republicans would have to be very sleepy not to have already picked up on the importance of turnout in this election and next fall’s. They, like the Democrats, are scrambling to turn out every vote they possibly can. And they have seen that massive spending on advertisements does not change many voters’ minds: despite the 7-1 fundraising advantage Walker enjoys over his challenger, Democrat Tom Barrett, the polls have shown Walker with a relatively stable 3-point edge that hasn’t widened as Walker and his allies have poured more than $18 million into TV spots — more than triple the Barrett camp’s expenditures. So unless the results tonight are more lopsided for Walker than polls indicate, I think will be very clear to the GOP that matching or exceeding Obama’s turnout efforts in the fall are a very high priority.

A more compelling case for a bit of left-wing optimism — or at least tempered pessimism — comes from Scheiber’s colleague Alex MacGillis. If Walker wins tonight, as most expect him to, there is no reason to assume that swing Walker voters will necessarily be Romney supporters:

If these swing voters believe that things are gradually coming back in Wisconsin... they may decide to vote for Walker less out of ideological solidarity than because they figure it's foolish to rock the boat with the rare act of a recall. And here's the thing to the extent that Wisconsin swing voters draw that conclusion about Walker, they may also be led to support Obama's reelection, to stick with the guy in charge. Hard as it may be to believe, there is no question these Walker/Obama voters exist after all, the same polls that have Walker ahead of Barrett in the polls tend to also have Obama ahead of Romney, albeit by a narrowing margin.

The “don’t rock the boat” tendency of the electorate helps to explain the incumbency advantage, and it is why recall elections have so infrequently resulted in the successful ouster of a sitting governor. (If he is sacked tonight, Walker will be only the third governor in United States history to be recalled.)

For this reason and others, Democrats shouldn’t write off Obama’s chances in November tonight if Walker prevails. The fate of public sector unions, though, is another matter there, despair probably is in order.

Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

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