Politics & Policy

What the Recall Meant

Making sense of the Wisconsin vote



When the clock struck nine on the East Coast Tuesday night, the polls closed in Wisconsin. Moments later, the news spread across Twitter that exit polls showed the race neck and neck, 50–50. Gradually, results came in that debunked this result. So what happened? Are exit polls junk?

The answer is no, exit polling isn’t junk, but it is a lousy way to estimate a final vote margin before any votes are in. Exit pollsters collect data from a carefully selected set of precincts, and then as actual returns come in, the data are weighted to match those results.

Here’s a rough example: Let’s say I’m an interviewer doing exit polling at a precinct, and during the day I interview six Walker voters and four Barrett voters. Alone, that’s not enough interviews to say with any certainty that my precinct is going 60–40 for Walker, but the “raw” data will look like that’s the result. As the night goes on, it turns out my precinct was instead split 53–47. The data from my precinct will be weighted to that result. 

What the networks are doing when they go to make a call is they’re watching how the data adjust when precincts get weighted back to real returns. When enough precincts are in for which the exit-poll estimates are sound, they can call. The next morning when we wake up to read the news, the numbers being tossed around are based on the final weighting and are a great way to understand subgroups in the electorate.

The raw data are lousy for telling us instantly who the winner is in an election. But as the data evolve, they grow in accuracy and usefulness for evaluating “what happened.”

— Kristen Soltis Anderson is pollster at the Winston Group.



Though exit polls indicated a dead heat, the networks picked Governor Scott Walker to win by 10 p.m. Eastern time. The result is a body blow to government unions at a time when they have become more consequential than the remnants of the once-massive private-sector-union bloc. While the election represents a major setback for public unions (whose perks and benefits are low-hanging fruit in a time of budget crises), it demonstrates a healthy civic impulse and clear-sightedness on the part of voters. The decision to retain Governor Walker demonstrates an ability on the part of voters to discern the difference between private unions (which can be a perfectly legitimate part of a free-market negotiating process) and public unions (which are a different sort of creature). Public unions create a class of voters (government-union members) who are able to promise money and support to the people making decisions about their pay packages and work conditions. It is anything but an arm’s length transaction made in the interest of all citizens. The process highlights the way narrow interests can exploit apathy on the part of the public to gain concentrated benefits. The situation is made worse by the fact that many of the benefits (such as pension promises) don’t come due until well in the future, when feckless decision-makers have long since left office and need not face the music. The public union is a Tocquevillian nightmare.

There is little incentive (other than fiscal responsibility, an exceedingly rare virtue) for executives like Scott Walker to rein them in. But he did it anyway. Walker bet his term on drawing attention to the way public unions act against the public interest. He paid a price in having to fight a determined recall. But last night, he was vindicated. The people of Wisconsin have decided to reject the kind of government that rewards organized public employees with perks and promises well beyond those available to the vast majority of Americans working in the private sector. In so doing, they have taken an important step in equalizing the playing field between those holding government jobs and those working in the private economy that supports the government jobs.

— Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science at Union University. He is the author of The End of Secularism and Political Thought: A Student’s Guide, which comes out next month.


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.


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.


Like the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which slowed the forward march of industrial unionism, and Ronald Reagan’s victory over the air-traffic controllers in 1981, the victory of Scott Walker in the Wisconsin recall election will be remembered as an inflection point in the history of both American statism and American labor unionism. Public-sector unionism has been on a roll for the past 40 years. It has managed to bring together the union and civil-rights strands of the Democratic party into a potent political force. Public-sector unions, explained Andy Stern — until recently the president of the Service Employees International Union and a close ally of the Obama White House — “are the most powerful political force in the country.” But that may no longer be the case.

Wisconsin, deservedly famous for the Midwestern amiability of its citizens, might seem an odd locale for a conflict that has taken on elements of a civil war. But the bitter conflict between Scott Walker — the self-described “Tea Party governor” who stripped public-sector unions of their pivotal ability to automatically collect union dues from their members — and the labor movement is intense, because the oversize government-workers bloc, arguably a bearable burden during times of prosperity, threatens to capsize Wisconsin’s fisc. And if that seems like an overstatement, it’s important to note that one of Walker’s most effective tropes was to point across Wisconsin’s southern border to Illinois, where the union stranglehold has produced functional bankruptcy. In Illinois, he has noted, “they’re now shutting down state facilities, laying off tons of public employees, and cutting Medicaid, while we added money to Medicaid and avoided massive layoffs.”

Part of Walker’s victory came from the support of private-sector unions, who — unlike government unionists, who grow by extraction –have a direct stake in the strength of the private-sector economy. Support for Walker and Barrett was nearly evenly split among private-sector unionists. This points both to a great opportunity for the Republicans in November and to Mitt Romney’s liabilities: It’s hard to imagine a political personality — save for Barack Obama — less appealing to working-class whites.

The 2009 and 2010 elections, and now the first important election of 2012, have all gone the GOP’s way. But Walker’s victory will hardly settle the issue of government unionism. Government unions won smashing victories in California (2005) and Ohio (2011). Don’t expect them to exchange their swords for plowshares. They’ve been diminished but they’re far from defeated. La Luta continua.

– Fred Siegel is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.



However much the unions try to minimize the re-election of Scott Walker in Wisconsin, this is a very ominous loss for them. The recall was initiated, organized, and funded by them in retaliation for Walker’s common-sense collective-bargaining reforms in a state being bankrupted by the excesses of public-employee unions.   

The Wisconsin results remind me of former archbishop Cyril Garbett’s famous saying, “Any fool can criticize, and many of them do.” Contrary to critics’ claims, Walker’s reforms have been so successful that they have improved the state’s economy. Unemployment is now on a downward trend. And he has turned a $3.6 billion inherited deficit into what will be a $154 million budget surplus by 2013.

Weak-kneed politicians in Washington (including certain presidential candidates) should take a lesson from Walker’s determined and unbowed performance, and his willingness to move forward with government and economic reforms in the face of frenzied opposition. They should keep in mind Eugene O’Neill’s view: “Critics? — I love every bone in their heads.”

— Hans A. von Spakovsky is senior legal fellow/manager at the Civil Justice Reform Initiative at the Heritage Foundation. 

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