Scott Walker’s 7-point victory is an undeniably huge win for Republicans, one they have every right to brag about today. They also have every right to claim the result signals Wisconsin’s arrival as a genuine pickup opportunity for Mitt Romney in November, something Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is already doing.
“Republicans have the infrastructure and enthusiasm that will help us defeat President Obama in Wisconsin,” he said in a memo released last night. “In that respect, it was a great ‘dry run.’”
But on this point, there’s good reason to be skeptical.
Priebus’ memo details the GOP’s grass-roots mobilization efforts, touting impressive-seeming statistics – 3,400 new volunteers, 26 new campaign offices in the state, 4 million voter contacts – that will supposedly roll over to the fall and give Romney a leg up in the state. Of course, Democrats and their allies can furnish impressive-seeming voter contact statistics of their own; it’s not as if they sat on their hands while Republicans organized the state, or that they’re about to roll over in the fall.
When it comes to the presidential race, a more meaningful statistic is the exit poll finding that Barack Obama led Romney by 7 points, 51 to 44 percent, among recall voters. This figure should be taken with a grain of salt. It doesn’t account for those who voted absentee, a significant chunk of Tuesday’s electorate, and in general exit poll data isn’t always reliable. But it also squares with polling throughout the campaign, which consistently showed both Walker and Obama enjoying leads over their opponents.
For politically engaged observers, it may be hard to imagine the voter who is simultaneously sympathetic to a union-busting Republican governor and a Democratic president whose opponents often accuse him of hating capitalism, but these voters do exist.
This doesn’t mean that Obama is a lock to take Wisconsin in the fall, or that the GOP will be wasting its money to compete in the state. But it does mean that Obama is still the favorite to win it, something every Democratic nominee since Michael Dukakis has done. Wisconsin can be a tough state to figure politically, a state with a rich progressive tradition that also sent Joe McCarthy to the Senate. But it clearly favors Democrats at the presidential level, though the margins have varied over the years. In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush came within a fraction of a point of carrying the state, while Obama racked up a 14-point landslide in 2008.
At this point, the state looks to be a fringe fall target for Republicans. That is to say, Obama’s ’08 margin has been cut roughly in half, mirroring the erosion of his support nationally. This is what presiding over a stalled economy more than three years into your presidency will do. In fact, Obama’s slippage in Wisconsin may be slightly more pronounced than it is nationally, owing to the state’s large population of blue-collar and middle-class white voters, who are most likely to have turned on the president these past few years.
But he is still ahead and is still benefiting from the state’s Democratic tendencies. If Romney makes up the extra ground needed to overtake Obama in Wisconsin, it will probably be part of a larger national shift – with Romney moving ahead (or into contention) in a number of states where Obama now seems to have the advantage.
There’s really no reason to believe the recall itself will impact the November result. Like everywhere else, Obama’s decline in the state has been fueled by the national economy. This began before Walker was elected and before he undertook his collective bargaining crusade. If there had never been a recall campaign, Obama would be in the exact same position in Wisconsin, leading Romney by a margin that’s nothing like his ’08 advantage – but that’s still healthy enough to make him the favorite for November.