Tuesday’s Wisconsin gubernatorial recall will be the most meaningful election until November. The race, which pits incumbent GOP Gov. Scott Walker against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, has been highly anticipated by political partisans of all stripes as a referendum on Walker’s controversial moves in 2011 to essentially end collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin. It has deeply polarized this swing state, and the race has become a key bellwether for the President Obama’s reelection and for the future of organized labor in the United States. Here are five key factors to watch as the returns come in Tuesday night.
Turnout in the recall election is expected to be sky-high. The state estimates turnout for the recall will be between 60–65 percent. This would dwarf 2010 numbers, when fewer than half of Wisconsin voters cast a ballot as Walker and Barrett first faced off for the governor’s office. Turnout will be far more similar to that of a presidential election than a normal off-year election (let alone a June recall). The key question is whether this surge in voter participation will lead to an atypical electorate. Democrats have attacked many of the public polls, showing Walker with a lead, for having a conservative skew. In fact, even a recent PPP poll that showed a tightening race, used a likely voter screen that had an electorate that was less likely to have backed Obama in 2008 than the Badger State as a whole. While some partisan redoubts such as the Democratic bastion of Madison or the Republican strongholds in the Milwaukee suburbs are almost certainly to have packed polling places, there is one key area where turnout is far iffier.
City of Milwaukee Turnout
The biggest challenge for Democrats will be to turn out the predominantly African-American voters in inner-city Milwaukee. This has proved a focal point of Democratic turnout efforts. In particular, the major surrogate appearance by former President Bill Clinton took place in Milwaukee as an attempt to mobilize the city’s black community. Turnout among African-American voters in nonpresidential elections has traditionally lagged. This gap was particularly pronounced in Milwaukee in the two major statewide races since 2008. The city will be the focus of the much vaunted get-out-the vote program of Barrett and his labor allies. If the Democratic GOTV efforts aren’t successful there, Barrett won’t stand a chance.
The biggest test for Democrats will be to turn out the predominantly African-American voters in inner-city Milwaukee.
Is Brown Red or Blue?
One of Wisconsin’s more purple counties is Brown County, where Green Bay is located. This swing county backed Obama in 2008 but backed Bush in both 2000 and 2004. Barrett does not need to win this political weathervane of North Wisconsin as Obama did; he just needs to keep it close in a jurisdiction that Walker won in 2010. If he does, it bodes well for Barrett across northeastern Wisconsin, an area where he needs to pick off some counties and keep Walker from running up any significant vote margin. If Barrett can keep the margin in Brown County within 5 to 7 points, he has a shot. If it’s greater than 10, he’ll just give an early concession speech.
There is a third option on the ballot besides Walker and Tom Barrett. Hariprasad “Hari” Trivedi is an Indian-American pro-medical marijuana doctor running in the recall as an independent. Trivedi, who spent $17,000 of his own money to purchase advertisements around February’s Super Bowl, will not win. But in an election that has become a referendum on Walker’s stewardship of the state, he could prove to be a spoiler. One poll had Trivedi’s supporters breaking 6 to 1 for Barrett as a second choice. In a tight election, this mild-mannered nephrologist could win enough votes to swing the election and be primed to assume a Ralph Nader level of infamy in Democratic circles.
A new Wisconsin law making it more difficult to vote could keep thousands of young people from casting a ballot in the recall. Under Walker, the state passed a law imposing tighter voter ID requirements and almost tripling the residency requirement in a precinct from 10 days before the election to 28 days. The problem is, dorms close at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and most other colleges in the state less than 28 days before the election. The result is that thousands of young people are moving and are unsure of exactly where to vote. It’s created significant confusion among the only age demographic that Barrett won in 2010 and could potentially dampen turnout in Madison. If there are problems there on Tuesday, it will add yet another layer of controversy to the heavily contested recall and make it that much more difficult for Barrett to overcome Walker’s lead in the polls.