Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Scott Walker Wins, But What is the Real Lesson Here?

It all started out so well for opponents of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Over 900,000 voters in the state signed petitions to initiate a recall election, and the protests that have rocked the state over Walker's scaling back of union rights seemed to indicate that there was a groundswell of support for a regime change at the top of the state government.

All of that momentum seemed conspicuously absent on Election Day Tuesday, however, as Walker rang up a fairly easy victory in the race over Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. The race wasn't a blowout by any stretch, but TV networks did feel comfortable calling the race for Walker only about an hour after the polls closed in the state. Walker, to his credit, was in a conciliatory mood during his victory speech, perhaps realizing that even though he was kept in office, there is still an undercurrent of discontent in the state. Whether that was just political posturing or a legitimate cooling of the jets on his heated conservative rhetoric (an unlikely proposition, given his skyrocketing popularity among Tea Partiers throughout the country) remains to be seen, but at least on this night, Walker seemed like he was willing to move a bit back toward the middle.

There were several thoughts going through my head while coming to grips with the fact the election didn't go the way I wanted it to. For starters, the notion that the election was bought is probably going to be parroted by a lot of liberal talking heads over the coming weeks while dissecting Walker's triumph, and even in this blog I talked about how it would be a victory for the forces brought about by the Citizens United ruling, but the fact of the matter is that money did not buy this election. Sure, it may have swung things in the favor of Walker (considering his 10 to 1 advantage in fundraising, this isn't a stretch to say), but the facts are that he won because the electorate of Wisconsin has some intense feelings about this whole recall process.

Exit polling isn't the most reliable source of information about anything, but the numbers are pretty stark in this instance. Quite a few voters expressed distaste for the notion of removing a public official from office for something other than gross misconduct in the line of duty, and upwards of 90% of voters had already made their minds up about who they would vote for in the election even before the recall was made official. This kind of polarization of the electorate made it very difficult to unseat an incumbent who only took power a year and a half ago, and when you combine those two forces, this election wasn't exactly a winnable proposition.

That still does not change the fact that Barack Obama and the Democratic Party really screwed the pooch in not trying to allocate more resources to this fight. Sure, the odds were long, but with day-of-election registration available to the voters of the state, there was still a chance that they could convince enough people that Walker needed to go that the race could have ended in different fashion. Much like they did with Scott Brown's surprise victory in the Massachusetts Senate race to replace the deceased Ted Kennedy in 2010, the Democrats brought knives to this gunfight, and they didn't do nearly enough to help Barrett fight back against the barrage of money that Walker and his associates brought into the campaign.

The Chicago Tribune perhaps summed it up best when they posted an article with this headline in the lead-up to Tuesday's election: "Obama's Last Minute Virtual Weigh-In on the Wisconsin Recall." That pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the lack of seriousness the Democrats treated this race with. Even if they couldn't have swung the tide in their favor, the fact of the matter is that they basically seemed to roll over and die in the face of opposition that was well-financed from outside groups. It does not set a good precedent in this state or elsewhere that the Party seems content to pick their battles too judiciously, and even though the party stands for liberal values, they are acting downright conservative with their allocation of resources.

If this race wasn't important enough to warrant a bit more attention, then frankly, I'm not really sure what was. The Democratic Party pretty much left Barrett to twist in the wind, and the President and his supporters need to do some serious re-evaluation of their tactics in the face of several of these types of white flag defeats.

As for Mitt Romney, he is probably going to come out guns blazing tomorrow about how this race is a microcosm of the general election fight he will be having with President Obama in the weeks and months to come. He will talk about the discontent among the electorate of this country, and he will tout that even in a state that was blue for Obama in 2008, the message that Republican policies of cutting spending and stripping power from unions are resonating with the American people. Frankly, with the lack of attention and money that the Democrats gave to this race in Wisconsin, Romney should crow, because they deserve the egg on their faces.

The reality of the situation, however, is that this wasn't some massive repudiation of Obama and the Democrats. We already cited the fact that Wisconsin voters didn't think it was appropriate to remove Walker from office based on policy disagreements, but the exit polling also showed a trend that Romney probably won't want to shine too much light on. When asked who they were planning to vote for in the presidential election, 51% of voters on Tuesday said that they would be casting ballots for President Obama, while 46% support Romney.

If there is one good thing to come out of the election for folks on the liberal side of the aisle, that's it. Even in a state that allowed Republicans to ride in on a wave of anti-union momentum in 2010, Obama is still ahead in the polls of people who cared enough about the state of their democracy to cast ballots, and that is a pretty powerful indication that Romney still has a hill to climb to paint the state red in five months.

Trying to paint the results on Tuesday as a victory for anyone is a bit of a stretch in the face of all of this data. Yes, Walker won handily, so clearly Republicans are still running strong in the state despite the ferocity of the protests against them in previous months. Yes, Romney is going to have a mandate of sorts that he can point to as evidence that the American people are tiring of President Obama and his policies. While both of those statements are true, Obama's five point win in exit polling is an indication not only that people still seem to trust him more on economic issues than Romney, and it also probably reveals that conservatives aren't exactly enamored with him as the general election draws near.

Most importantly of all, it shows that in the post-Citizens United era, the conservative money machine can get revved up whenever they have an interest in a race. It wasn't the biggest reason that Walker won this election, but the fact remains that in other races where people's minds aren't made up quite so early, the barrage of ads funded by these shadowy groups could end up being the difference maker, and that is a bad thing for our democracy. This is merely the opening salvo in what is going to be a long and difficult election season for liberal candidates, and if the damage wrought by that shot is any indication, there could be some serious losses on the horizon.

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