Will the Wisconsin recall foreshadow November?

Opinion: Why Tuesday's result won't tell us much about this fall. 


The recall election of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has Democrats and Republicans in Washington keeping their fingers crossed for a team victory and a good week of talking points. Both parties have tried to package this election as a forecast of what’s to come in November. But is it really an accurate measure? Probably not, given recent history.

The polling gives an edge to Walker as there were no surveys in May showing Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D) ahead. Anything can happen in the final days, but the odds favor Walker winning on Tuesday. In fact, the only poll that showed anything but a Walker lead had the race tied.  Still, this poll was methodologically suspect, at best, and should be ignored. This was an interactive voice response (IVR) poll done for the Greater Wisconsin Committee over Memorial Day weekend. Polling in general over this weekend would be questionable, but an IVR poll over a holiday weekend is a waste of time and money.

The average of public polls has Walker leading Barrett 49 to 48, according to Pollster.com. But if you take out the campaigns’ internal polling, it’s Walker ahead, 52 to 44. Tuesday will show us if the public polls got it right, or if the internal polls from Barrett showing a tightening race were on the mark.

Regardless of where the recall ends up, a claim by either side that this is a telling sign of what’s to come in November is not based on any polling numbers -- more like wishful thinking. History should not be ignored when it comes to election results and neither should the current polling numbers. Both point to Wisconsin giving its support to President Obama for a second time this November.

When it comes to looking at past election results we shouldn’t forget Obama won Wisconsin in 2008 by a 56-to-43 margin, giving him a buffer to lose some support and still be well above 50 percent. Moreover, Democratic presidential nominees have not lost in Wisconsin since then-President Reagan’s nationwide thumping of Walter Mondale in 1984. Wisconsin is one of the states that every four years Republicans think they have a chance of winning but always seem to come up short in. In other words, it’s the GOP’s equivalent of Missouri for Democrats.

Recent polling also offers very little when it comes to a credible GOP argument that a Walker win will mean Wisconsin is in play. Let’s look at the Marquette University Law School Poll from May 23-26, which showed a strong lead for Walker (52 percent to 45 percent). It would be, if anything, slightly more favorable to the view that a Walker win means trouble for Obama. But there are no signs of this at all. Indeed, 52 percent of likely November voters approve of Obama’s job performance, 55 percent have a favorable opinion of him, and 51 percent of likely voters say they would vote for Obama if the election were held today.

The lead in the horse race includes Obama winning Independent voters by a 48-to-39 margin, while Walker leads the same voters in the recall 53 percent to 38 percent. Clearly independents are not connecting these two races in their minds and this is the one group where this number has any meaning.

On the flip side, just 40 percent of voters have a favorable opinion of Romney (47 percent have an unfavorable opinion), and only 43 percent say they would support Romney if the election were held today. Those are hardly troubling numbers for the president.

What this recall will show is how well the two sides can turnout their base. Turnout will be much lower than it will be in November. Regardless of who wins on Tuesday, don’t listen to anyone who claims that this is a precursor to what will happen in the 2012 presidential election.

Stefan Hankin is founder and president of Lincoln Park Strategies, a Washington D.C.-based public opinion firm. Follow him on Twitter at @LPStrategies


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