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So I've been reading everything I can today in terms of analysis about the election in Wisconsin today and I've yet to find anything that I really agree with. I don't want to rehash much of what you can read elsewhere, but it seems that the only people more off the mark about what Wisconsin "means" than Fox News and their allies are progressives. There are a few notions that I really can't wrap my head around, no matter how many people seem to say them. I'm not suggesting that I am the only one who "knows" what all this means and that everyone else is wrong, I'm saying that what I'm reading and hearing doesn't make sense in the context of questions I still have. Convince me I'm wrong or let's expand the conversation to get more accurate analysis.
This was a big loss for the left: How is something that was entirely expected to happen a big loss? Pretty much all the polling said Scott Walker was going to stay in office, he had a massive money advantage, the Democratic candidate was uninspiring and was fought against in the primary by left-wing groups, voters don't like recalls, recalls almost never work and Walker had already beaten this candidate not even two years ago. So how is this a surprise outcome and how is it "big" in any way? If a professional basketball team plays a college team and beats them, how would that be big for the pro team? The upset would've been big, but the status quo, while painful, isn't big. From the beginning, this was a movement that was something that people were hopeful about, but there was never any real evidence that Walker was going to lose. There was lots of evidence that he should lose, but one of the first things you study in public opinion polling classes is how little voters make their choice based on issues. On the issues, Wisconsin voters aren't that much in line with Walker, but since most voters aren't making their decision based on the issues of the day, that doesn't matter much.
The only victory in Wisconsin was a moral victory: When the broad recall campaign started last year, it had two goals: recall Scott Walker and recall enough state senators to flip control of that chamber to the Democrats. One of these worked and the other didn't. And, at least until next year, it seems as if Walker's agenda will be nearly completely stalled. The ultimate goal of both of these recall efforts seems to be to stop Walker from further harming the state. It looks like -- barring a recount -- that such a goal has been achieved, at least, potentially, until the next election. How is that not a victory?
Unions are big losers in Wisconsin: The only way you could make such an argument is if you lay the entire campaign at the feet of the labor movement and/or you convincingly make the case that the voters chose Walker's anti-union agenda on purpose. I don't think either of those arguments is consistent with the facts. Unions were part of a broad coalition that was fighting against Walker for, what, six months? And how much of that time was spent on winning the election, as opposed to the Democratic Primary or the petition gathering process? Unions, as with other groups, fully focused on defeating Walker for about a month. To claim the labor movement is dead because it couldn't pull off the unprecedented feat of taking out a sitting governor who was elected by the people in a month fails even a basic logic test. And, again, decades of political science research shows that less than 20 percent of the electorate makes its candidate choice based on current policies. Exit polls showed that 10 percent of yesterday's voters who rejected Walker's assault on unions voted for him. 38 percent of union members voted for him. 52 percent of voters who think things have gotten worse under Walker voted for him. If voters were voting based on issues, even issues that directly affect them, in any significant numbers, how could these exit poll results exist?
The left lost because it had a bad message: Exit polling makes it very obvious this isn't the case:
First, 60 percent of voters thought that recall elections were only appropriate for official misconduct, while 27 percent said "any reason." Another 10 percent said "never"—and those voted for Walker 94-5. It's hard going into any election with 10 percent immediately off the board, and for those who said "only official misconduct," Walker won 68-31. Turns out people just didn't like the idea of a recall—something worth filing away as an important lesson learned.
Second of all, young people didn't turn out. Only 16 percent of the electorate was 18-29, compared to 22 percent in 2008. That's the difference between 646,212 and 400,599 young voters, or about 246,000. Walker won by 172,739 votes. Turns out having the recall in the summer, when the universities were out, was among the biggest strategic miscalculations.
How can you win an election when 70 percent of the electorate doesn't think the election itself is valid? Now it is probably the case that Walker has engaged in official misconduct, but he hasn't been charged with anything, which is kind of what the word "official" implies. Until he's charged, most Wisconsin voters don't think that any recall is valid. Despite that, the vote against Walker significantly outpaced the belief that the recall election was valid. Similarly, the decline in youth turnout outpaced the Walker margin of victory. What I can't understand is saying something like "this means liberalism lost," when it's clear that people didn't reject liberalism, they rejected the recall election itself. If Walker loses re-election in 2014, that will pretty much cement my take on this and I'll predict that Walker will not be elected governor of Wisconsin in 2014.
Young people don't matter: See above. Young people could've decided the election, but they didn't because they weren't taken enough into account in determining the strategy for the recall. This is a complaint that a number of people on the left have been making for years. And when young people are taken into account, it has a significant impact. One of the reasons Barack Obama won in 2008 was that he expanded the playing field of the electorate, including youth outreach. Why hasn't the left continued this approach much since then? If we don't turn this around -- and not just with youth, but with all groups that underperform in voter turnout -- we'll continue to lose.
The Wisconsin results show that GOTV money is wasted: It's pretty clear that some more GOTV money spent on young people could've changed the outcome of the election. And since Walker won by 172,739, it's certain that some more spending on GOTV, particularly if it were spent earlier, could've had a significant impact on the margin of victory.
Electoral politics are a dead end for the left: The left had some electoral victories in 2006 and 2008, then immediately proceeded to abandon some of the significant changes they had made in order to achieve those victories. It's also quite clear that things like Citizens United changed the rules of the game and not in our favor. Add to that, in the 1960s, conservatives started methodically building a movement that now has them in major positions of power and has them with the infrastructure and financing they need to dominate elections despite being out of touch with the people on most issues. Part of the problem is that the left, while they have recognized the need to build a similar movement, still hasn't built anything like what the right built and it doesn't seem like they are really even trying to. Sure, a lot of good people are doing a lot of good work, but too much of that work is still siloed off and there isn't much of an overall movement being built, certainly nothing like what the right has done. Elections are part of that movement, but too many on left have focused solely on elections -- which gets you some victories -- and haven't focused enough on building the infrastructure that wins you elections even when you don't have good candidates, campaigns or messages. The right has that infrastructure, how else can you reconcile the fact that, from Florida alone, terrible candidates like Allen West, Sandy Adams, Daniel Webster, David Rivera and Steve Southerland are in Congress? It's because you can plug any idiot into the Republican system and they can find a way to win in a competitive district. Democrats only win competitive districts with stellar candidates and/or campaigns. We can talk about that infrastructure at a later date...
Democrats need more moderate or centrist candidates to win: This one is simply a matter of looking at the numbers. How many wishy-washy centrist Democrats win election in competitive districts? How many extreme Republicans win election? How many centrist Republicans win election? It looks to me like of these three groups, extreme Republicans are most likely to win in a competitive district. Why is that? Money is obviously a factor. So is infrastructure and candidate training, recruitment and staffing. But it seems pretty clear that how "extreme" the candidate is doesn't seem to hurt them a whole lot if they make it clear what their values are and stand by their convictions. Voters seem to like that more than candidates who are more moderate. This is an argument that people smarter than me have been making for years. And it seems just as true today as it was when people made it years ago. Every time Democrats lose an election, the establishment left calls for more centrist candidates. Then Democrats lose again. Go back to the polling from 2008 and remember that the electorate overwhelmingly thought that Barack Obama was more liberal than the average American (forget that he never was for the moment), and yet they voted for him anyway. Because of the success of the right-wing message machine, my guess is current polls would also say that Obama is more liberal than the average American (forget again that it still isn't true) and compare that to the swing state polling and it seems likely that he will be elected again, despite being thought of as more extreme than the rest of the population.
Money either "doesn't matter" or "is the only thing that matters": It's obvious that money can matter in elections. 2010 is a prime example of that, particularly if you look at places like Florida where Gov. Rick Scott bought the job using his own personal fortune. It doesn't always matter, it isn't the only factor and it can be overcome, but it's clear that outspending a candidate 7-1 (or more) has to have an effect on the outcome of the election. Walker might've lost if he had less money. But it's also clear that spending more money doesn't always win elections, particularly if the other side has adequate funding and uses it more wisely and runs a better campaign with a better candidate. It's clear none of that happened with Walker's opponent. Victory depends on sufficient money coupled with a good candidate and a good campaign. In Wisconsin, we lost on all three of these, so it's no wonder Walker stayed in office.