What It All Means, Initial Thoughts

June 5, 2012 7:15 p.m.

Coming out of Wisconsin tonight, what do the results mean and what don’t they mean?

These are bad times for incumbents across the country and, frankly, around the world. A governor convincingly (we still don’t know the exact margin) winning a recall election is a big deal. Victory counts. There’s no getting around that.This is also a big loss for public employees unions. There’s no getting around that fact. Just why that happened is another matter. But at the end of the day, victory is all that matters. Walker went big to destroy the public-sector unions in his state. And the labor movement went all out to take him down and lost. Wisconsin’s a pretty progressive, fairly blue-ish state. This result in this state has to embolden Republican governors across the country to think you can go for game-changing attacks on key Democratic constituencies like labor and not pay a price at the polls. Public employees unions across the country feel like they have crosshairs on their backs. And they do.

I don’t think you can spin this any other way.

Here’s piece of data to figure into this. A year ago plus, Walker made a hard push against public opinion. And he seemed like a dead man walking politically. He got really unpopular and stayed unpopular until late last year, as you can see in this chart.

Why weren’t the anti-Walker forces able to sustain those numbers? That’s an important question I don’t think we have an answer to. Enthusiasm is critical. But enthusiasm and passion is evanescent if it doesn’t live within robust institutions. Which brings us back to the power (or lack thereof) of the union movement and public impressions of it. Why Walker ceased to be unpopular is the big question here.

Big questions and not many clear answers.

Next: Money. Republicans massively outspent Democrats in this race. You get various versions of the numbers. But it appears to have been something like 7 to 1, if not more. Why did Dems allow themselves to get outspent like that? Again, not clear to me there’s a good answer to that. But it’s also pretty clear that Dems need to realize that they can’t plan on winning elections with those kind of money differentials. Maybe that’s obvious but it bears saying. And everything we’re seeing in this cycle suggests Republicans are doing a massively better job exploiting the opportunities created by the Citizens United decision.

You can say this is unfair. But Republicans have a different take, especially when talking to their big dollars donors. Their take is: this works. Let’s do it again. Send more money.

Finally, Obama.

For all the ominous things this election said for labor movement and Dems, I don’t buy that this tells us a lot about President Obama’s fate in Wisconsin or across the country. Why? Look no further than the polls. Tonight’s exit polls showed that President Obama would win handily with this electorate. Indeed, all the polls leading up to this vote showed Walker winning by a solid margin and President Obama winning by an even solider margin.

Here are the trend lines.

Inconsistent? Totally. But who cares? Voters aren’t always consistent. Get used to it.

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