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The Wisconsin recall: myths and talking points

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Part 1.

Part 2.

Yesterday I looked at Bruce Murphy’s article about the Wisconsin recall, and how Murphy thought Democrats and unions brought defeat on themselves. There is one point he made that fits in with a purely political analysis, which is what I’m focusing on today. He writes: “Had Tom Barrett — or any Democrat — offered an alternative, some approach that would eliminate the abuse of public benefits without crushing unions, while protecting the many public workers who are not overpaid, this could have carried the day against Walker.”

This is actually really off base. Barrett has a famously equivocal relationship with unions, and was definitely not their first choice. Given how central unions were to initiating the recall, it seems crazy to have nominated someone who has clashed with them in the past. Wouldn’t a solidly pro-union candidate have been a better choice – someone who could have amplified the issues of the previous year and forcefully made the case for the right to collective bargaining?

Political analysis elsewhere seems off as well. One talking point is that Walker was able to use his vast war chest to rehabilitate his image in the months before the election. Maybe, however, his low poll numbers were almost bound to improve.

Simply put, once the union-busting law was signed he didn’t have anything close to that controversial going on. At that point regression to the mean took over. We actually have a useful parallel in Ohio. John Kasich’s poll numbers have gone up ten points since the hottest part of the SB5/Issue 2 controversy last year. His approval rating is still very low, but it’s nothing like it was when he was actively antagonizing a large part of the citizenry.

Yet Kasich hasn’t been running ads or otherwise making himself visible to Ohioans; he’s just stopped pissing them off. That’s enough for a pretty substantial rebound in approval. There’s no reason to think the same wouldn’t have happened with Walker even without a single TV ad. I don’t think it’s quite right to say he bought his way out of his hole.

I think people may be overreacting a bit to the role that money played in this race, and in the role it plays nationally. Or at least, the ability of money to shape public opinion in the absence of an effective countervailing force. People might by default be receptive to what they see on TV, but are much more powerfully influenced by the actual people around them and by their lived experience. That is yet another reason for the left to devote its energies to building mass movements instead of buying mass media.

We can’t compete in the money race. We are outgunned. We might be able to mitigate its worst effects with some of our own money, but trying to go toe to toe at that level is a fool’s errand. Our advantage is in the ability to appeal to people’s real lives, and to build up our numbers by grassroots organizing. We’ll never be able to outspend them, so we should focus on outworking them. (Caveat: my understanding is that the Tea Party folks did a good job of GOTV – including finding Walker voters in left-leaning areas like Dane County.)

Of course, doing that would require a less vertical hierarchy. It would require making room for other groups to be empowered and for more local control to flourish. In other words, finding ways to partner with the mass movement instead of trying to co-opt it – and finding a way to get all those thousands of people who stood out in the cold involved in a way that resonates with them.


One of the driving factors of the recall effort was the success in Ohio of the No On Issue 2 movement. The resounding success of that vote was a real jolt of adrenaline for Wisconsin activists, and they charged ahead with their petition gathering. If I recall correctly, the state Democratic party was ambivalent, and the national party actively discouraged it. That might explain the reluctance of the party apparatus to give its unstinting support to the effort.

Ohio and Wisconsin both ended up with a little over 900,000 verified signatures for their efforts. Ohio ended up with over 2 million votes against Issue 2 (also Cf.); Wisconsin just over 1.1 million for the recall. Ohio has more voters, so there was a higher ceiling. Assuming everyone who signed a recall petition voted for the recall, Wisconsin activists did an astonishing job of reaching out during the petition drive. Just imagine if that energy had been properly harnessed.

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