The Wisconsin recall effort may look like a lost cause for the Democrats and union activists who hope to see Governor Scott Walker voted out in a couple weeks. Over at the Washington Post, Jenifer Rubin offered a piece titled "Democrats are dreading a Wisconsin wipeout." InTrade, the prediction market for anything and everything, shows Walker today with a 91 percent chance of winning.
But things are hardly settled. While Walker has a clear and consistent lead in polls, that lead is relatively small—except for an outlier or two, it's been around 5 points or less. "The polling is showing margins that are either close to the margin of error or just outside the margin of error," explains Charles Franklin, a Wisconsin political scientist who's currently overseeing the Marquette Law School Poll. (His own poll showed a 6-point Walker lead.)
The stakes are high. If, after collecting more than 1 million signatures to prompt a recall, Democrats fail to oust Walker, it will give the current governor a huge boost. "If Walker wins, he claims a mandate because he will have survived this," says Franklin. "That will be ultimately his trump card." It helps, of course, that Walker has become a national cause, as Tea Party and business groups have rallied to his side. Such groups helped him raise millions in out-of-state contributions. Having spent millions more than Barrett, Walker has largely won the money battle.
Presumably, Democrats and labor activists are ready to fight tooth and nail to pull off a win. Here are the three ways they could do this:
Walker is polarizing, so there aren't a lot of people undecided in this race. To some extent, the recall election will be won based on which side can get more people to the polls. While conventional wisdom would have it that Democrats have an organizational advantage, Franklin's polling data shows that 91 percent of Republicans say they are "absolutely certain" to vote, compared with only 83 percent of Democrats and independents.
Obviously the recall effort has dramatically energized the right. More than 626,000 Republicans turned out to vote for Walker in the GOP primary earlier this month. That's impressive given that Walker was an incumbent with virtually no opposition. It showed the Republicans were organized and enthused about their candidate. The Democrats had an even larger turnout, with 670,000, but that primary was hotly contested—and resulted in Barrett as the nominee.
Of course, the anti-Walker forces have their own careful organization, borne from collecting over 1 million petitions and prompting the recall in the first place. If they can make more folks "absolutely certain" they'll vote, Walker will be in trouble.
The Barrett campaign has focused on two main issues: Walker as corrupt and Walker as a failure with jobs. The corruption charges, according to Franklin, aren't likely to stick unless something dramatic occurs. While there's been a long-term John Doe investigation surrounding many close to Walker, the issue splits almost entirely along partisan lines. While the majority of voters have heard about the John Doe case, only Democrats seem to think it's a serious issue—and for the most part, they're supporting Walker anyway.
The jobs message is much more important—and has gotten more complicated than you might expect. Walker promised two years ago to create 250,000 new jobs. But in April, the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed Wisconsin had lost almost 24,000 between 2011 and 2012—the worst numbers of any state in the country. The performance has been a key component of Barrett's message.
Walker's camp, not shockingly, have argued these figures are wrong, and touted April numbers showing a slight increase in jobs. And that's not all they've done. Last week, in a rare move, the state's workforce development secretary released quarterly Census data. The numbers are older, though they do show a 23,000 job-gain.
Barrett must not let Walker's claims take hold. So far, it seems, he's held strong. Franklin's data show 37 percent of voters believe the state lost jobs—and another 37 percent said there'sHow been no change. Barrett may be able to squeeze in if he can convince a few more that Walker's got a bad record on jobs. It's a "salient issue," says Franklin. " If one side could seize that jobs issue and win on it, it could be very helpful."
Then there's the question of labor. It's no secret that Walker's anti-public employee union measures last year sparked the recall movement, as tens of thousands came out to protest. Yet there's been little mention of anything union-related during the campaign. Barrett, as I noted last week, was not the union's favorite candidate. And many assume the issue is already decided for most people—saying that talking about union issues in the general won't make anyone more likely to support Barrett.
But that's not what the polling shows. Public Policy Polling numbers showed that 39 percent of union households still plan to vote for Scott Walker. That's a stunning number given Walker's anti-union stance (most recently highlighted in his ambiguous support for "right-to-work" laws).
John Nichols, an associate editor at The Capital Times and writer for The Nation, wrote a column recently arguing in part for more emphasis on union issues:
Soft messaging by Democrats on labor issues has done them serious harm with voters in their potential base. And a failure to educate the broad mass of voters on the importance of collective bargaining to protecting middle-class wages and benefits has been equally damaging.
Republicans do not make this sort of mistake. Walker’s done massive outreach to cultural and social conservatives, and he did not hesitate, even as the recall approached, to sign controversial bills that are high on right-wing priority lists. Walker knows that a recall election in a closely divided state is about maximizing appeal to the base, not softening messages and avoiding issues.
Given there are so few undecideds and so much at stake, Democrats might want to heed his advice.