What the Recall Meant
Making sense of the Wisconsin vote

The victory speech, June 5, 2012


Governor Scott Walker and Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch’s victories in the Wisconsin recall election were a triumph of conservative governance and signaled the growing sophistication of conservatives in the use of grassroots voter-mobilization technology. Walker’s reforms requiring public employees to pay more for their health care and pensions have now been vindicated as sound public policy and — while politically risky — not politically fatal. Indeed, the battle has made Walker a national figure. If adopted by more states and ultimately the federal government, his reforms give hope that the U.S. can avoid the fates of Greece, Spain, and the euro zone.

Republican and conservative organizations made over 4 million voter contacts, utilizing social media, the Internet, and text and e-mail messages to mobilize a record conservative vote. Wisconsin was a scrimmage that both sides used to try out tactics they hope to use in the general election. The results indicate that the formidable advantage Obama enjoyed in the ground game in 2008 is now diminished, and the two parties may be close to parity in turning out the vote.

Leadership matters. Walker made the tough decisions when it would have been easier to let the cup pass. Today his leadership has been vindicated, and both Wisconsin and the nation are better for it.

— Ralph Reed is chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Well, that was emphatic! Most everybody in the media and polling worlds had told us to prepare for a long night and a possible recount. Now I have to throw away a whole pot of expensive coffee. Last night’s early reporting and projections on TV bore no relationship to the reality of the tabulated vote; it’s amusing to remember the coverage for the first hour after polls closed. Could we all make a note to discount completely the topline results of the November 6 exit poll — and the news media’s breathless projections derived from them? I recollect how wrong they were on Election Night 1992, forecasting a big Clinton victory when it turned out to be a quite modest 43 percent. There was that snafu back in 2000 with the exit poll in Florida — does that ring a bell? I recall the exit poll in 2004 that created the Kerry administration for several hours. Truth is, Republicans disproportionately distrust the media and pollsters, and won’t be interviewed coming out of the polls. Apparently, there’s no good way to correct for this. Solution: Use the group breakdowns but not the topline data. This matters, because inaccurate projections made early on the East Coast has the potential to affect voting in other time zones.

As for the actual Wisconsin results, a good analyst never over-reads any election. A critical Democratic/Independent slice of the state’s electorate was sick of the constant turmoil caused by recall mania over the past year and a half. These voters viewed recall as an extreme remedy to be used for malfeasance in office, not to be employed for simple disagreement with an elected official’s policy choices. These voters made the difference for Scott Walker, and they are not necessarily available to Mitt Romney. Wisconsin may or may not turn into a swing state this year — that’s yet to be determined — but the presidential contest will be run under different conditions, with two candidates not named Walker and Barrett (the latter having been, for a second time, a second-rate contender). There are five months to go until November 6, and events — many of which cannot be known on June 6 — will be in the saddle. 

— Larry J. Sabato is director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.