By JENNIFER AGIESTA and THOMAS BEAUMONT, Associated Press
MILWAUKEE (AP) — Talk about a sharply divided electorate.
Gov. Scott Walker won Tuesday's recall election by topping his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, among independents, according to exit poll results in the state. Voters were passionately divided on the Republican-backed law that ended collective bargaining for most public employees and teachers.
Just over half, 52 percent, said they supported the changes to the collective bargaining law, and the same share approved of Walker's handling of the issue. Views on collective bargaining were a dividing line in the electorate, with 9 in 10 who approved of the new laws backing Walker and a similar share who disapproved behind Barrett.
Walker angered Democrats and union members last year when, shortly after taking office, he signed legislation that effectively ended collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin. The Republican governor presented the measure as necessary to avoid wholesale layoffs, although opponents said it was simply a way of dividing public-sector unions from private unions to weaken labor's political clout in the traditionally strong union state.
Union households made up about a third of the electorate, and 62 percent of them backed Barrett, about the same level of support he received among the group in 2010. The Democratic candidate improved on his 2010 performance among African-Americans and those with incomes below $50,000.
But that wasn't enough to boost Barrett over Walker in the rematch of the 2010 election in which the Republican won office. Walker's broad support among non-union voters, independents and those who decided before the final month of the contest carried him to victory.
Despite tens of millions of dollars in advertising, most voters decided on a candidate before the final ballots were even set. Exit polls found 86 percent said they decided who to vote for before May, raising questions about the impact — if any — all that money for TV advertising had on the electorate.
Walker carried those who decided early by 11 points, while those who made up their minds in the final month of the campaign broke for Barrett by 21 points.
Both candidates retained 94 percent of those who said they backed them in 2010. About 1 in 8 voters said they did not vote in 2010, and those new voters broke 53 to 45 percent for Barrett.
Walker held more solid support overall: Almost 9 in 10 Walker voters said they cast their ballots to support their candidate, while 47 percent of Barrett's backers said their vote was more against Walker than for his challenger.
Those were the key findings of exit polls conducted Tuesday for The Associated Press. The political world closely watched the recall election for signs of the electorate's mindset just five months before this presidential battleground weighs in on the White House race between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Obama carried Wisconsin by a comfortable margin in 2008 en route to the White House. But the Walker victory could make the state more attractive to Romney as he seeks to do what no Republican has done since 1984 — carry the state in a presidential election.
The exit polls suggest Obama fared well among voters in Tuesday's contest, though November's electorate might be substantially different. Among recall voters, Obama topped Romney overall, 51 percent to 44 percent, and as the candidate who would do a better job handling the economy and on helping the middle class. A sizable 1 in 5, however, said they trust neither party's candidate on the economy, which is likely to be the main issue in the presidential campaign.
Walker's performance in creating jobs in the state was a point of major contention in the recall contest, and voters tilted positive on how he handled it, with 54 percent approving of the job he was doing.
Most voters view unions for public employees favorably, 51 percent according to the exit poll, and Walker's push for changes to the collective bargaining law prompted huge demonstrations on Madison's capital square as well as a successful petition drive last fall to recall Walker.
Yet, on Tuesday, most Wisconsin voters suggested the criteria for recalls should be tougher. There have only been three such elections in the nation's history, the most recent in 2003, when voters recalled Democratic California Gov. Gray Davis.
The vast majority of voters said recall elections should be allowed in at least some cases, though most feel they are appropriate only in cases of official misconduct.
"I just think the whole recall election was uncalled for and it was just a big waste of taxpayers' money," said Jeff Naunheim, 48, a warranty analyst from St. Francis who voted for Walker in the recall. "I don't think he did anything illegal. And if this is going to set the standard on how things are going to go in the future, it's going to be an ugly, divided mess."
The exit poll of 2,457 Wisconsin voters was conducted for The Associated Press by Edison Research in a random sample of 35 precincts statewide. Results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points; it is higher for subgroups.
Agiesta reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Scott Bauer and Carrie Antlfinger in Milwaukee contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.