Wisconsin Is Not a Harbinger for the 2012 Presidential Election

Tuesday's recall election was about the future of public sector unions, not partisan politics.


Despite much Republican fanfare over Gov. Scott Walker's triumph in the Wisconsin recall, this election is not a harbinger for the 2012 presidential election. The recall results also do not portend public union denunciation. The evidence for such conclusions can be found in CNN's exit poll results. Instead, the recall election presages public union reform throughout the country. 

Some have misinterpreted Walker's recall survival as an indication that the tides have turned against Obama and the Democrats. In 2008, Obama carried the potential swing state by 14 percentage points. Some conclude that a majority vote for Walker indicates a permanent shift of voters from the Democrats to the Republicans. However, exit poll data demonstrate this is not the case.

While a majority of Wisconsin voters opted to keep their governor in office, a majority also intend to cast their ballots for Barack Obama in November. This should not come as a surprise. Marquette and Reason-Rupe polls of Wisconsin voters conducted in May demonstrated both Walker and Obama capturing majority vote simultaneously.  This means that a share of Obama voters are also Walker voters, indicating that not all Walker voters are partisan Republicans. For instance, about a quarter of Walker voters approve of President Obama's job performance and 16 percent plan to vote for him. Political independents also split in favor of Walker, 54 percent to Barrett's 45 percent, but this does not necessarily mean they will do the same for Romney.

Some may hold up the Wisconsin results as a public denunciation of public employees and their unions. But this is counter to the evidence in the CNN exit poll of Wisconsin voters. Instead, a majority of Tuesday's voters have a positive view of public employees while also voting to keep Scott Walker. Indeed, 51 percent of Wisconsin voters on Tuesday had a favorable opinion of government unions. Nearly a quarter of those favorable to unions cast their ballot for Walker. Although attitudes toward unions certainly played a role in vote choice, it was not the single driver.

While others contend the recall election was not prescient of the general election, they say it was nonetheless about Walker as governor and not about collective bargaining. This misses the crucial point of Tuesday's results—it was about withstanding the political consequences of reforming public unions. Unions instigated the Walker recall in part to restore their previous collective bargaining power, but also to demonstrate that a governor cannot "roll over" public unions without dire political consequences. Yet Walker did withstand the recall, suggesting the public is willing to accept reforms to public unions and not necessarily throw out leaders who attempt to reform them.

Wisconsin's Impact on November

Although the Wisconsin recall election does not portend Obama voters swinging toward the Republican Party in November, the recall may still have an effect on the presidential election.

Walker's survival demonstrates to governors throughout the country that it is politically feasible for a governor to reform public sector unions. Currently, Republicans control legislatures and governorships in 24 states. The Wall Street Journal cites Americans for Tax Reform' Grover Norquist, who says that perhaps half of these states will pursue similar reforms within the next year.

If Wisconsin is any indicator, public union reforms tend to decrease union membership (because membership becomes optional and the unions have less negotiating power). For instance, Wisconsin has observed one-third or more of its public union membership decline.

As reported in The Wall Street Journal, the Center for Responsible Politics (CRP) finds Democratic candidates to be recipients of about 90 percent of union campaign spending. Moreover, CRP reports public unions are one of the biggest sources of donations to candidates behind Hollywood, Wall Street, and the insurance industry. If more governors enact public union reform, fewer individuals will join and pay dues. And with less membership dues filling their coffers, unions will have less money to spend on Democratic candidates. So far in the 2012 election, public unions have donated $4.7 million to congressional candidates. The PACs of the three largest public-sector unions have raised as much as $23.4 million so far to be donated directly to candidates, to pay for advertising, and other election activities.

Consequently, reforming public unions may have an indirect effect by reducing union campaign spending for Democratic candidates. Yet if this were to occur, union membership dues and campaign spending would decline over time, not necessarily before November of this year.

The other potential impact on the presidential election is the grassroots networks established in the recall. In 2008, Obama won Wisconsin by 14 percentage points. However, the GOP has since invested a great deal with voter research and grassroots mobilization strategies for the recall which could be re-implemented in the fall. Had it not been for the recall, Republicans would likely not have invested so much in this potential swing state. This may explain why Washington Democrats were reluctant for the recall to occur this year, and had suggested to Wisconsin Democrats that they wait until after the presidential election.

It is also possible that Obama's lack of involvement in the Wisconsin recall may dampen Wisconsin Democrats' resolve to mobilize voters on Obama's behalf come November. Rather than campaigning alongside Milwaukee Mayer Tom Barrett, the president merely tweeted his support for Barrett's candidacy.

The Wisconsin recall election is not symbolic of a future Romney success in the state. Instead, it represents the likely future of public sector workers. Tuesday's results may embolden governors to reform public unions in their own states.

Emily Ekins is the director of polling for Reason Foundation where she leads the Reason-Rupe public opinion research project, launched in 2011. Follow her on Twitter @emilyekins.