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Will Wisconsin’s Recall Elections Hold Clues to 2012?

With the 2012 presidential race in early stages and the political press looking for clues about the mood of the electorate, politics in Wisconsin has become a national story. The battles between new Republican Gov. Scott Walker, Democrats and the public sector unions have laid down markers in a larger ideological fight that has ramifications for 2012.

Now, after weeks of signature collection, the Badger State faces a new political battle: recall elections. Nine state senators face recalls, six Republicans and three Democrats, on the tentative date of July 12.

At stake is the balance of power in the Wisconsin State Senate, where Republicans currently hold a 19-14 advantage, and, really, the balance of political power in the state. Should Democrats manage to pick up a net of three seats in all those recall votes, they would control the Senate and be able to put the brakes on Walker’s agenda.

After his inauguration, Walker wasted no time in taking on the state’s public sector unions, arguing that they needed to make concessions in tight budget times. He also pushed to remove their ability to collectively bargain. That angered the unions, sparked weeks of demonstrations and caused Democrats to leave the state capital in protest. It also led to 12 recall drives – six each for Democrats and Republicans – and finally to the 9 elections slated for this summer.

Those nine elections are individual battles, but looking at them through Patchwork Nation’s county breakdowns offers some insights into where the elections may be headed.

Different Elections, Different Electorates

Recall elections are not general elections. They are usually smaller affairs with much smaller turnout. And since 1926, when they were made constitutional in Wisconsin, there have only been four in the state

But it would be wrong to lump in the current recalls in Wisconsin with that history. The 2011 electorate is a special animal – disgruntled and unsettled and, it would seem, particularly motivated. How often do you see nine recalls in one year?

Already the media has taken notice of one Democratic gain in the state assembly in a recent election in Wisconsin.

And as we have noted in past posts, the recent election for the state Supreme Court showed sharp differences in how the counties, and types of counties, seem to have reacted to Walker’s agenda – with voters in smaller towns showing signs of anger. That’s not a surprise to Patchwork Nation, which has noted the high levels of public sector employment in those communities.

In that analysis, three county types saw the Democrats making the biggest gains in the Supreme Court vote in relation to the November 2010 gubernatorial vote: the Boom Towns, that saw good growth in the last decade; the small town Service Worker Centers; and the aging Emptying Nests.

In those county types, the Democrats picked up, on average, at least 5.5 percent. And districts holding those county types are the most heavily represented in the Senate recall districts.

Of course, not all recalls are created equal. A few of these recalls, the 22nd and 30th for instance, seem unlikely to succeed. The Democrats won in those districts by margins of 25,000 votes or greater.

But in four of the recall efforts – the 8th near Milwaukee, 12th in the state’s northeast Corner, 18th around Wnnebago and Fond du Lac counties and 32nd straddling the Iowa and Minnesota borders- the odds for success seem much higher because the margins of victory were 2,500 votes or less. In three of those districts, the Boom Towns, Service Worker Centers and Emptying Nests play a big role. Three of those four seats are also currently held by Republicans.

The rest of the recalls are either state senators with good-sized wins or uncontested races.

Many Differences

Before anyone reads too much into those numbers though, there are some very big notes about them.

First, those election results are all from 2008 – those are the only races distant enough to allow recalls. And the United States was a very different place in the fall of 2008– just ask any Democrat in Washington. And Barack Obama was on the top of Democratic ballot.

Second, Wisconsin itself was a very different place back in 2008 politically. By all accounts, the passionate events of the last few months have seriously damaged cross-party relations.

In the end though, the story in Wisconsin may be less about the final tally than it is about where the votes come from – which voters and counties are most motivated to vote. Do the voters in the Service Worker Centers change their votes? Do the voters in those Boom Town counties reaffirm theirs?

In a state suddenly steeped in politics – in an atmosphere maybe a bit like 2012 – those numbers may end up being the real message to strategists in both parties.

Patchwork Nation will be in the state around the time of the recall elections to see what they can tell us.

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