What the Recall Meant
Making sense of the Wisconsin vote

The victory speech, June 5, 2012


Wisconsin’s recall election is déjà vu all over again. When all the votes are counted, Scott Walker will win by about the same margin as he did in 2010. After $100 million and national attention for 17 months, the Wisconsin voters have said, in their polite Midwestern way, “Yeah, we really meant it.”

Demographically, what’s telling is where the minor changes from 2010 occurred. Walker ran even with or ahead of his 2010 percentage in virtually every county dominated by private-sector employees. He ran behind slightly in areas with high concentrations of government workers (Dane and neighboring Rock counties; Milwaukee) and in smaller counties with private-sector-union heritages (Douglas and Bayfield in the north, Kenosha in the south). The majority private-sector taxpayer decided it was unfair to pay public-sector-union employees substantially above market compensation, and was willing to take a radical step to bring compensation more in line.

What does this mean for 2012? On the national level, not much. Public-sector-union compensation is a small part of the federal budget, so there’s not really an issue that Romney can run on. Surely this will embolden conservative Republicans to follow in Walker’s footsteps, but the electoral aftermath of this defunding of the Democratic-party shock troops won’t be felt until 2014 or 2016 at the earliest.

The exit polls show that some of Walker’s margin was owing to a sense that the recall itself was unfair. Only 30 percent of the voters thought a recall should be used for any reason whatsoever, and this group was highly favorable to Democrat Tom Barrett. The remaining 70 percent of Wisconsinites thought recalls should be used only in cases of official misconduct, and Walker heavily carried those voters. On the core question of collective-bargaining repeal, Walker’s position was favored by a narrow 50–48 margin.

The exit poll also shows Romney has real problems in Wisconsin. He loses to Obama by 11 points, and nearly a third of Walker’s voters say they are either voting for Obama or haven’t decided yet. Since Wisconsin’s voter base is tilted toward white-working-class Catholics and Lutherans, this suggests again that Romney is struggling to gain traction among the group most responsible for the magnitude of the 2010 GOP wave. Romney strategists should pore over tonight’s results to see how they can attract the “Walker Democrat” whom they need in November to win Ohio and Iowa (and thus the election).

— Henry Olsen is a vice president of the American Enterprise Institute. 

By itself, the Wisconsin result does not necessarily mean doom for organized labor. But together with other data, it contributes to a grim picture for the unions.

In 1983, the overall union-membership rate stood at 20.1 percent. In 2010, it was 11.9 percent, and a year later it was down to 11.8 percent. Most of these union members worked in the public sector. Private-sector-union membership was just 6.9 percent.

Even before Walker’s victory, labor’s public-sector firewall was showing cracks. Because of fiscal constraints, states and localities have been trimming payrolls. According to a 2011 Gallup survey, 16.3 percent of American workers said they worked for government, down from 17.2 percent in 2010 and 17.3 percent in 2009.

Just as their ranks are thinning, the unions are not getting a particularly sympathetic response from the public. Last year, Gallup found that only 52 percent approved of unions, far below the 75 percent of the 1950s. Asking a different question, the Pew Research Center reported that 45 percent expressed a positive view of unions, the lowest in a quarter century.

As pension costs put increasing pressure on state budgets in the years ahead, do not expect these figures to improve.

— John J. Pitney Jr. is Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.