Democratic Loss

Obama’s Takeaway From Scott Walker’s Wisconsin Recall Election Win

Ben Jacobs on the lessons about money and messaging from the Democrats’ loss in the state’s recall vote.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s win, after all the sound and fury of the 18-month recall process in Wisconsin, may not have much predictive value for November. Exit polls show that the state electorate that solidly backed Walker on Tuesday would have preferred Barack Obama to Mitt Romney if the presidential election had been held on the same day. Still, the election did reveal two key trends, one that will work in Romney’s favor and the other in Obama’s.

The first is that money matters. One of challenger Tom Barrett’s key talking points was that his campaign was outspent by a margin of 7 to 1. That was a bit of an exaggeration: organized labor made a huge investment on Barrett’s behalf that cut the deficit to something closer to half that margin.

Yet for all of labor’s outlays, Barrett and his allies were still outspent by a margin of more than 3 to 1, and this spending came predominantly in the form of television ads. Although Obama had a major financial advantage over John McCain in 2008, the situation will be different this fall. The Obama and Romney campaigns and their allies will likely be more evenly matched. But Republicans are more likely to invest in television ads, while Democrats tend to invest more in a field program.

With a highly polarized electorate, the investment in the ground game on the Democratic side didn’t pan out in Wisconsin. Instead, it was Walker’s barrage of televised ads that made the difference. The situation plays to Romney’s strengths in November: his field program will pale in comparison with what Obama for America will have on the ground, but with the aid of super PACs, he will likely be able to exceed Obama in television advertising.

Tuesday’s second trend is that messaging matters, and Walker’s messaging was almost identical to what Obama will use in the fall. Even their slogans are similar. Obama is simply using “Forward,” while Walker went with “Moving Wisconsin Forward.”

Walker, as Obama is expected to in the fall, faced dismal economic data. But he found ways to sidestep that, emphasizing his own numbers—which may not have been quite as accurate as the ones produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics but sounded just as good in a television ad. The Wisconsin governor also was able to cite the progress he made and emphasize how he made the difficult decisions, saying in his victory speech, “Voters really do want leaders who stand up and make the tough decisions.”

While money and messaging were the two big trends, there was one key fact. Democrats lost badly in a race where both sides invested heavily. Late Tuesday night, it seemed Democrats had not won even one of the four state Senate seats on the recall ballot. It may have been a special election under unique circumstances, but it was a loss. Wisconsin voters could still tilt Democratic in November, but they unquestionably went Republican on Tuesday night.