What a week for Team Obama, with a listless jobs report and then a Democratic flop in the main political event, Tuesday's Wisconsin recall election targeting Gov. Scott Walker. The incumbent's easy victory blotted out President Obama's economic woes, but not for any comforting reason. Here are five takeaways from the race:
Labor, we have a problem. This was an existential match for so-called Big Labor. The situation doubly evoked the line from The Usual Suspects: "How do you shoot the devil in the back? What if you miss?" Walker staked his governorship on his shot at labor and, conversely, the unions' continued political effectiveness was tied directly to their ability to exact retribution. Labor missed; Walker didn't.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Walker's anti-union blitz had its desired preliminary effect. From March 2011 to February of this year, for example, Wisconsin membership in the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees dropped from slightly under 63,000 to a bit less than 29,000—that's more than half in less than a year, in part because Walker made it harder for unions to collect dues via payroll deduction. This will only accelerate a long-term trend of declining union membership nationwide. In 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 20.1 percent of U.S. workers were unionized, but in 2011 that figure had dropped to 11.8 percent. The bureau also found that 37 percent of public sector workers are unionized, as opposed to only 6.9 percent of private sector workers. That figure is now in danger of a dramatic decline.
Corporate citizens, united. The money was staggering. The head of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign predicted to CBS News that the total cost for the recall election will end up near $80 million, with outside groups spending nearly half of that, at least $33 million. Just two years ago the same race cost $37.4 million, with outside groups pouring a piddling $6 million into the contest. And the outside figure doesn't even tell the whole story, because a loophole in Wisconsin law allows an incumbent targeted with a recall to raise unlimited amounts of money. Walker pulled in $30.5 million, with two thirds of it from outside the Badger State. You can be sure that conservative governors in other states now know what kind of national support they can hope for if they try to expedite unions' path to political oblivion.
And more broadly, imagine the resources that will flow when the stakes are not a state but the White House. Thanks to Citizens United, we won't have to imagine.
Fool's gold. We don't want to overdraw conclusions based on Tuesday's race, so it's important to keep a couple of data points in mind. Perhaps most important is that fully 70 percent of voters surveyed in exit polls said that they believe recall elections are never appropriate or are appropriate only for official misconduct. Walker's campaign focused heavily on this argument and it proved a nearly insurmountable structural barrier.
And while the GOP is trying to foment Democratic discord by pointing out that President Obama didn't campaign for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, it's a hollow point. The breadth of Walker's win justifies Obama's absence: It's exceedingly unlikely that Obama could have pulled Barrett over the finish line, and a direct swing-state rebuke five months before the presidential election would have been devastating.
The real cheese. That isn't to suggest that Tuesday doesn't tell us anything about November. Certainly it was a dry run for each side's voter identification and turnout apparatus, and one in which the GOP flexed stronger muscles than anticipated. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, a former Wisconsin state party chief, bragged that the national party had opened 26 offices statewide and made over 4 million voter contacts.
Democrats took comfort in exit polls showing Obama up 7 points over Republican challenger Mitt Romney. (As the New York Times's Nate Silver points out, over the last 40 years, presidents have run more strongly in states with governors of the opposite party.) And 18 percent of those who plan to vote for Obama voted for Walker, so there may be salience to the argument that the same rising economic fortunes that helped boost Walker (the state's unemployment rate is 6.7 percent) could help Obama.
Nevertheless, Democrats must worry about the continuing GOP dominance among non-college whites. Walker won 61 percent of white voters without a college education on Tuesday, including 67 percent of non-college white men. As National Journal's Ron Brownstein noted, Obama's continued weakness with this group means he must clean up in states where education levels and racial diversity are rising, like Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, and Pennsylvania.
Can't fight the future. It's fashionable to predict that Texas, with its rising Hispanic population, will move into the Democrats' column within a few presidential cycles. But as aptly named Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics notes, the obverse could push states like Wisconsin the other way. "As the Democrats increasingly become a party of minority voters … that is likely to alienate white voters, especially downscale white voters," E-mails Trende, author of The Lost Majority. "Since the upper Midwest is overwhelmingly white, we would expect to see it trend toward Republicans even as the Mountain West slips away from them."
Obama may hold Wisconsin, but he could well be one of the last Democrats to do so. Don't be surprised when it turns red in 2016 or 2020—perhaps under a GOP ticket led by newly minted Republican rock star Scott Walker.
- Read the U.S. News Debate: Did Scott Walker's Recall Win Pave the Way for a Romney Victory?
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