The Campaign Spot

How Wisconsin Could Be the First Domino of 2012

It is easy to overstate the ramifications from one race in June on the national elections to come in November. But if the Democrats’ effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker fails, it is not unthinkable that this could be the first domino to fall in a sequence that dooms President Obama’s reelection hopes.

First, almost all of the polling between Walker and his newly-nominated Democratic rival, Tom Barrett, shows a close race, often with a small Walker lead. Barrett may very well get a boost from winning the primary; no Republican should underestimate the scale of the challenge before Walker and his supporters right now.

But what’s fascinating is that the issue that allegedly prompted the recall, Walker’s changes to state collective bargaining rights, have evaporated as a political issue. Only twelve percent of Democratic primary voters picked “restoring collective bargaining rights for public employees,” as the most important consideration in their choice of a nominee; twice that percentage said “beating Scott Walker.”

There’s a lot of evidence that the primary driving issue in the recall is Wisconsin Democrats’ uncontrollable loathing of Walker. Barrett did not mention “collective bargaining” in his Election Night message. Instead, he said “what I’ve heard from Wisconsinites is that they want an end to the political turmoil caused by Scott Walker.” Right on Barrett’s web site right now, the headline is not, “vote Barrett.” It says, “Defeat Scott Walker.”

(Just to clarify, Wisconsin Democrats fled the state, had noisy rallies disrupt the state legislature, saw vandalism in the state capitol building, compared Scott Walker to Adolf Hitler, pushed for recalls of every Republican in the state legislature they could and the state Supreme Court, and now the governor… and they want an end to “political turmoil.”)

Of course, the recall effort is not going the way Democrats had planned. After collecting about 900,000 valid signatures, Democrats held a primary… and their top two candidates collected 619,049 votes between them. Walker, with no real opposition in his primary, won 626,538 votes — suggesting the Wisconsin Republican grassroots enthusiasm runs a lot hotter than anyone expected. Democrats can console themselves knowing that at least once you throw in their lesser-known candidates, they came out with about 670,000 votes.

Still, about 230,000 folks signed the recall petitions and then didn’t vote in the primary, raising the question of how many people signed the petition just to get the clipboard person to go away. Election fatigue is a real factor in this state. Since 2010, Wisconsin voters have been to the polls in April 2011 (a statewide judicial election) July 2011 (state legislative recall primaries) August 2011 (state legislative recall general election) the county primary (February 2012) the state’s presidential primary (April 2012), this month’s recall primary, next month’s recall general election, and then the primary for the Senate and House in August. Oh, and then there’s November’s general election.

Almost all of these efforts have been a giant vacuum on the financial resources on both sides. The good news for Wisconsin Republicans is that they have more to show for their efforts; Wisconsin Democrats, unions, and affiliated groups have spent two years and millions upon millions to win two state Senate seats.

Could all of this add up to trouble for Barack Obama in Wisconsin? Well, every dollar and man-hour spent in these quixotic recall efforts is a dollar and man-hour not spent working on Obama’s reelection effort. At some point, the passions of some of Wisconsin’s grassroots Democrats will burn out and the state’s voters may tune out a lot of political messages between now and November.

If the message of Republican extremism, and the innate goodness and nobility of public sector unions fails, time and again, in a state like Wisconsin… just how much better can an incumbent president running on the same theme do across the country?

Of course, polls show President Obama with a pretty consistent and pretty healthy lead in Wisconsin. But in the past six months, Rasmussen’s polls of likely voters have had Obama’s lead in the mid-single digits. Also note that according to Gallup, self-identified Republicans make 40.9 percent of the electorate (up from 36.2 in 2009). Self-identified Democrats still make up a larger share at 45.3 percent, but that’s down from 48.2 percent in 2009. President Obama’s approval was at 47.4 percent in Wisconsin in 2011, down from 57.7 percent in 2009. Any state that replaces Russ Feingold with Ron Johnson is experiencing a dramatic political metamorphosis.

With a promising Senate pickup opportunity in the state and the former state party chair, Reince Priebus, now running the Republican National Committee, the GOP will be watching Wisconsin with the closest of eyes for any opportunity to nudge it into the GOP column.

Perhaps most importantly, Wisconsin was a state few ever thought President Obama would have to lift a finger to win; he won more than 56 percent of the vote there in 2008. Wisconsin is a “nice to have” state for Romney but a “if we lose it, we’re in big trouble” state for Obama. If Romney’s looking competitive in Wisconsin in October 2012, then Barack Obama is probably in dire straits. Demographically, Wisconsin is 83 percent white, more blue-collar than the national average, slightly less young than the national average, slightly fewer college-educated than the national average, and much more rural than the national average. If Wisconsin looks iffy for Obama in the fall, how much better will he be doing in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa?

Fans of Scott Walker had argued his victory in the recall was as important, or even more important, than the presidential race. With the two races intertwined, is it too much to ask for both?

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