How Did Gov. Scott Walker Survive the Recall?
Experts, exit polls point to numerous reasons why Republican governor defeated Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett: money, turnout and displeasure over the recall process.
Tuesday’s recall election was the ultimate course of action that Wisconsin residents could have taken to unseat Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
However, the nature of the recall process itself might have been a big reason why Walker became the first U.S. governor to survive a recall attempt when he defeated Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Just 49 minutes after polls closed, major news outlets across the country called the race for Walker as vote tallies trickled in. Ultimately, Walker posted a 7-point victory — garnering 53 percent of the vote to Barrett’s 46 percent. In 2010, Walker won by an almost identical margin — 52 percent to 47 percent.
“Unlike a normal election, a recall puts the burden on the challenger to explain why the incumbent has performed so terribly that he needs to be removed from office early,” said Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin. “That made the task for Barrett even more difficult than in 2010 when it was an open seat.”
According to a national exit poll, the candidates’ ideas were either incapable of swaying voters to the other side or voters were simply reaffirming a choice made in November 2010. Of the voters surveyed, 94 percent of those who voted for either Walker or Barrett in 2010 voted for that candidate again in 2012.
“Either we already made up our minds and stuck to it or neither side found arguments that made people on the other side change their mind,” said Charles Franklin, professor of law at Marquette University. “This is a slight improvement for Walker from where he was in 2010, but it’s also vindication for him — I’m sure he’ll say a mandate — because he survived the recall and not only survived, but did it with slightly more strength than before.”
Many voters say recall wasn't warranted
Walker notched another 2 percentage points to his margin of victory in 2010, and that may have been generated by voters who disagreed with recalls no matter their political affiliation. According to the same exit poll, 60 percent of those surveyed said recalls should only be held for official misconduct, and another 10 percent said recalls shouldn’t be held at all.
“Many voters said in exit polls that they disliked the recall process being used in cases like this one,” Burden said.
A Whitefish Bay man, who declined to give his name Tuesday outside the polls, said he voted for Barrett in 2010, but he was switching his vote to Walker Tuesday on the principle of opposing recall elections.
"I don't agree with everything Walker did, but I just don't think the recall should happen," he said.
Franklin said the notion of voting for Walker simply because people did not believe in the recall may have happened, but Walker’s approval ratings, coupled with yesterday’s vote, indicate it wasn’t a widespread phenomenon.
“You have to put it in perspective that his job approval rating has been about 51 or 52 percent in our polling and in exit polls as well, and he got 53 percent of the vote (Tuesday),” Franklin said. “That’s not a big difference. … Not that people don’t have that feeling. It’s quite possible that they do.”
McGee Young, an associate professor of political science at Marquette, said there are many reasons why people vote the way they do, and putting your finger on just one of them is difficult.
“Not all of them are separable from each other,” Young said. “You should think of a vote as an aggregation of different reasons, (for example) party registration, issues, family pressure, same first name as candidate, yard signs, principle of recall, etc.”
Turnout played a role in outcome
Ultimately, there was little change of opinions across the state between 2010 and 2012. Turnout totals, however, were higher, but the percentages also changed little.
In Democratic strongholds of Milwaukee and Dane counties, for example, about 88,000 more voters went to the polls Tuesday than did in 2010.
Barrett saw a 1-point increase in his margin of victory in each of those counties as compared to 2010, and again took more than 60 percent of the vote in each.
However, Walker also received a turnout spike in deep red Waukesha and Washington counties, and a combined 35,000 more voters went to the polls Tuesday than in 2010. Both counties gave Walker more than 70 percent of the vote in 2010 and again on Tuesday. Walker also posted victories in 60 of the 72 counties throughout the state.
Show me the money
Walker’s ability to outspend Barrett carried some transparent advantages to his campaign, and its biggest impact could be felt during two periods, according to Franklin.
The first was during the initial petition drive and into mid-winter, when Walker ran a fair number of positive ads about how his reforms were working for the state.
“That happened in a period, as far as I know, when there were no Democratic counters in terms of advertising,” Franklin said. “That helped his campaign establish some arguments why his positive message should be accepted.”
The second important stretch came during the pre-primary election days when Walker’s campaign focused solely on Barrett, while Barrett, with what money he did have, was focused on beating former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk.
“The cash differential was just one of the ways in which Walker was advantaged,” said UW's Burden. “It certainly helped him get onto the airwaves early with advertisements and helped to fund the call centers and other operations that mobilized Republican voters.”
Young, of Marquette, suspects the Walker campaign believed its expenditures mattered to the outcome, whereas, “Barrett probably would have spent more if he could.”
During the campaign, Barrett did become better known to Wisconsin, but his unfavorable ratings rose more than his favorable did, Franklin said.
“That’s common in an ad campaign against someone,” Franklin said.