Wisconsin activists shocked onlookers last week when they presented more than one million petitions asking for Governor Scott Walker to be recalled. Since then, the pendulum has seemingly swung in the governor's favor: high fundraising numbers, a state of the state address celebrating his policies, and a poll showing him leading four potential opponents. But there's still a lot of time left to go: two months of verifying signatures, and then, assuming at least 540,000 are valid, an election six weeks later. If there's a Democratic primary, the process will be even longer.
With all that time and a divided electorate, the key questions will likely come down to which side can frame the debate and which side can turn out its voters. With Walker currently ruling the television waves and his opponents perfecting an impressive grassroots organization, it's hard to see one side with a clear upper hand. Even the poll offers few conclusions. So let's take this week's news, point by point.
Wednesday's poll arrived showing Walker leading the four potential Democrats who might challenge him in a recall by single digits. But the governor should hardly start to celebrate, says Charles Franklin, the University of Wisconsin political scientist and elections expert who conducted the poll. Franklin argues that the poll's results hardly had a clear-cut message and instead revealed a split electorate, with different views on different issues.
"I think there's a very interesting mixed picture in this poll," he says. Franklin notes that while Walker was currently leading all four of the potential candidates—two of whom are unannounced and all of whom are unofficial—Obama leads Romney by more than 8 percentage points in the same group. "The same set of people can say, on balance, they're leaning towards Walker ... and leaning towards Obama at the same time," Franklin says. That might indicate that Walker's support isn't particularly solid. According to Franklin, much of the battle is to come.
At least a large part of the fight will be around which issue dominates the campaign. While the respondents were very positive on Walker's actions when it came to implementing a voter-ID law and forcing public workers to pay more for their benefits, they were strongly opposed to cuts to schools and health care. There's "nearly a 50 percent different between the issues where the governor has the strongest support and the weakest support," Franklin said. So far, it's not clear which issue will become the campaign theme.
With at least several months before any elections actually can take place, Walker and his opponents will likely fight to shape the message. And that, Franklin says, will require money.
Walker will almost undoubtedly win the fundraising battle. Tuesday, his campaign announced that the governor had raised around $4.6 million in the last month and more than $12 million in the last year. As the Wisconsin State-Journal explained, much of that money came from a handful of major out-of-state donors. Four out-of-state donors, including Texas billionaire and "swift boat" funder Bob Perry, have given a combined total of $1 million in just four days.
Only briefly mentioned, however, are the strange campaign-finance loopholes that allow Walker to take such big gifts. Under Wisconsin law, after the recall process begins (with the signature-gathering part), the incumbent being recalled no longer has to follow the usual campaign donation limits. Until the signatures are verified and the actual election is triggered, the governor may take gifts as large as he likes. Since one Wisconsin judge has ruled that election officials must make extra effort to ensure the validity of the recall signatures, the verification process will be 61 days, instead of the usual 31. That's an extra month for Walker to raise virtually unlimited dollars. It also opens him up to attacks from grassroots groups.
Since January 1, Walker has received donations from 17 individuals who took advantage of the lack of the state's typical $10,000 campaign finance limits. Those donors collectively have contributed about $1.6 million to Walker's campaign, accounting for 66 percent of the $2.4 million Walker has raised from individuals this year.
But while Walker has plenty in his coffers, a steady stream of television ads has not given him a big advantage in the polls. Walker has spent much of what he's raised—of the $12 million he's brought in, he has less than $3 million on hand. Franklin notes that Walker has had almost a huge TV presence for months, which likely accounts for the money spent. Yet those ad buys and spending have not seemed to sway many people. While the ads played, anti-Walker forces successfully gathered their million petitions to recall the governor.
When I spoke last week with Meagan Mahaffey, the executive director for the recall-organizing group United Wisconsin, she seemed largely unperturbed by Walker's fundraising prowess. "We've always been outspent by Scott Walker," she says. "We'll continue to be outspent."
In some ways, the pro-recall groups have already built their main weapon: a large-scale grassroots organization that gathered signatures and prompted the recall. "I think the process of collecting the signatures has given that side an unusual leg up," says Franklin, calling the recall effort's organization "amazingly complex."
"There's no way for that to be anything other than a strong sign of Democratic mobilization," he says. Much of that system can likely turn into a get-out-the-vote effort later on. Meanwhile, much of Walker's money will likely be needed to create his own on-the-ground organization. Without a big mobilization effort from Walker, the Democrats appear to have enthusiasm and intensity on their side.
Furthermore, Franklin said that while Walker's opponent was unlikely to raise anything close to the governor, the fundraising gap wouldn't matter as much thanks to the involvement of labor unions and outside groups on both the left and the right that would likely take an active role in the campaign.
In case anyone in the state had missed the deep political divides, Walker's state of the state address—accompanied by hecklers in the chamber and protesters outside—demonstrated the polarization. The speech itself was largely just a defense of last year's controversial policies. There was no mention of the recall, but instead, Walker focused clearly on his supporters in the business community. "Today, 94 percent of our job creators believe Wisconsin is headed in the right direction. That compares to just 10 percent who thought the same things just two years ago. And a majority of these employers say they're going to grow in 2012."
Walker better hope those business leaders are true to their word. While his speech touted an unemployment rate lower than the national average and record job creation, the Wisconsin governor is currently wide open to attacks on his record. He's far behind his promise of creating 250,000 jobs in his four-year term. According to the state's Department of Workforce Development, over the last year, the state has gained 13,500 private-sector jobs—while losing over 10,000 jobs in the public sector. That's a net gain of only 2,500. Furthermore, the state has lost jobs every month for the last six, as the rest of the country has started adding them.
Meanwhile, an ongoing John Doe case investigating some of Walker's current and former aides will likely be in the news throughout the recall process, providing fodder for Walker's opposition. As the Journal-Sentinel reports:
On January 5, Doe prosecutors charged Timothy Russell, Walker's deputy chief of staff when Walker was Milwaukee County executive, and former county veterans official Kevin Kavanaugh with stealing a total of $60,000 in donations intended for Operation Freedom, the Walker-initiated, county-run military appreciation picnic. Walker had transferred control of Operation Freedom's finances to a nonprofit entity controlled by Russell.
Another round of charges is expected soon against former Walker office aides for doing political work while being paid by taxpayers to do county jobs. Prosecutors also are investigating the handling of a real estate deal involving Milwaukee County.
That's hardly going to help Walker.
There's little history of gubernatorial recalls. The lack of conventional wisdom has everyone wondering what will matter most. The money? The grassroots organization? National politics? Walker has become a national symbol of the anti-union effort and outside the state, it's easy to wonder how anyone is left undecided. Without anyone left to convince, the recall becomes simply a mobilization game in what's likely to be a low-turnout election.
But Franklin and his poll show a more complex picture: Wisconsinites have an uneven view of Walker, liking some policies and disliking others. With the electorate so deeply polarized, it's surprising to note that some of the same people that oppose Walker's position on health care and schools support him when it comes to public benefits. It's still not clear what those divisions will mean when another candidate emerges to oppose the governor. Most organizers will tell you: Nuanced policy positions don't win elections.
In this case, however, it's not clear yet what will.