Obama's Wis. harbinger

Is it panic time for the president if his party’s effort to recall Scott Walker fails next week?

Published May 28, 2012 3:00PM (EDT)

There’s still a week left, but the prevailing expectation is that Scott Walker will survive Wisconsin’s June 5 recall election.

The Republican incumbent has led by a margin in the mid-single digits for the past few weeks, though Democrats insist their internal polls are closer. Tom Barrett, the Democratic candidate, turned in an aggressive and generally well-received performance in a Friday debate, the first of two head-to-head showdowns, and is now playing up the ongoing federal inquiry into Walker’s fundraising practices from his days as a county executive. The possibility of a late charge by Barrett can’t be dismissed, but he enters the campaign’s final days as a decided underdog.

Not surprisingly, this has Republicans pointing to the state as a ripe November target for Mitt Romney. There’s plenty of logic to this. The recall effort has been the story in Wisconsin for a year now, and the partisan and ideological lines are clearly drawn. So, given this polarized, high-interest climate, if the numbers end up breaking the GOP’s way on June 5, how could it not be some kind of harbinger for the fall?

Actually, there’s a good reason to think it won’t be: The same polls that have Walker well-positioned to fend off Barrett don’t give Romney quite the same strength. The most recent public survey, released last week by St. Norbert College and Wisconsin Public Radio, put Walker ahead 50 to 45 percent in the recall race and Obama up 49 to 43 percent on the presidential side. Before that, a poll from Marquette Law School gave Walker a six-point lead while showing a dead heat in the Romney-Obama contest.

It’s a reminder of the very mixed partisan and ideological messages that swing voters frequently send. In theory, it’s hard to imagine a voter brushing off the Democratic portrayal of Walker as a far-right ideologue, tool of the rich and destroyer of middle-class jobs while simultaneously buying into the same caricature of Romney. But swing voters often aren’t making straight judgments on policy and ideology, which is why where they say they stand on major issues often doesn’t line up with how they say they’ll vote in an election. So it’s very possible that Wisconsin voters will give Walker the go-ahead to finish his term and then vote to give Obama a second one this fall.

There have been so few statewide recall campaigns in American history that it’s hard to draw meaningful lessons from the past, but the example of California is worth keeping in mind here. In October 2003, the state’s voters recalled Gray Davis and installed Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor. Added together, Schwarzenegger and the other major Republican candidate on the ballot, Tom McClintock, took 62 percent of the vote, prompting Republicans to argue that the state’s political terrain had shifted and that George W. Bush would have a shot of winning it in 2004.

“Anybody who says California is impossible or out of play is wrong,” Ken Mehlman, who was then one of Bush’s top political aides, said at the time.

But the California recall was a harbinger of nothing. In 2004, John Kerry beat Bush by 10 points in the state, a number that was just two points off Al Gore’s 2000 pace – and consistent with a national popular vote shift in Bush’s favor.

Determining how competitive Wisconsin should be this fall is a tricky matter. Viewed one way, the state is a Democratic bastion at the presidential level: Obama won it by 14 points in 2008 and the state has gone blue for six straight elections. Even Michael Dukakis carried it! But this paints a misleading picture. The ’08 result represented the most dramatic swing in the country from 2004, when Kerry won the state by just two-fifths of one point. It was even closer in 2000, when Gore took it by a fifth of a point. And Dukakis’s win in ’88 could be chalked up to a brutal upper-Midwest economy that resulted in just about the only non-coastal patch of blue on that year’s electoral map.

The polls that have Obama and Romney in a close race in the state are a dramatic illustration of the erosion of Obama’s standing with economically anxious middle-class white voters. The state now seems back to being one where Democrats have a small built-in advantage but where Republicans can compete.

But this would have been true with or without the recall. Which means that Obama’s chances in the state are the same right now as they will be the morning after next week’s recall vote – no matter the result.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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