Recall Rematch: Record Voter Turnout Expected in High-Stakes Election
Experts talk about the impact of polling, fundraising and turnout in the state's first-ever gubernatorial recall election.
This Tuesday will not only mark Wisconsin's first gubernatorial recall election, it will also mark the end of the most high-profile, expensive and politically-polarizing race this state has ever seen.
Ever since Gov. Scott Walker unveiled his plans to eliminate most of the collective bargaining rights of public sector employees, the nation has turned its eyes to Wisconsin, of all places, as thousands protested on the Capitol, 14 Democratic senators left the state to stop the bill, recall elections were waged against six Republican senators and two Democratic senators, the results of a highly-partisan judicial election between Joanne Kloppenburg and David Prosser were reversed and recounted, and more than 900,000 signatures were collected to trigger this recall election – the ultimate "referendum on Scott Walker."
While the media has tried to handicap the election by analyzing television ads, pointing to various polls, dissecting the involvement of the national parties, comparing the grassroots effort on the ground and tallying up the amount of money collected by each side, the result of the recall election is ultimately going to come down to voters walking into their local polling place and checking off the candidate of their choice.
And the state's Government Accountability Board predicts Tuesday's recall election will draw more voters than any other governor's election in state history.
The GAB predicts 60 percent to 65 percent voter turnout, which would top the record-holding 52.4 percent turnout seen in the 1962 gubernatorial election. The predicted turnout would fall short of the 69.2 percent turnout seen in the 2008 presidential election, though.
"There's a lot of buzz out there," said John McAdams, assistant professor of political science at Marquette University. "This isn't like some April school board election. This is what we political scientists call a high-stimulus election: huge numbers of ads and huge amounts of participation."
Most polls favor Walker
A flurry of polls have been conducted since the primary election to try to predict the outcome of the election, and almost all of them show Walker leading Barrett.
A recently-released Marquette University poll shows Walker leading Barrett by 7 percentage points. Democrats have taken issue with the sampling in the Marquette poll, pointing instead to a poll commissioned by the Greater Wisconsin Committee’s political fund that shows Walker and Barrett in a dead heat.
Another poll released Sunday night shows Walker with just a 3-point lead over Barrett. That poll was conducted by Public Policy Polling, which leans Democratic.
Marquette Professor Charles Franklin, who oversaw the Marquette poll, said 17 polls have been conducted by various groups since April 1. All but one have shown some advantage to Walker, and all but two are within the margin of error.
But even the recent Marquette poll had conducted most of its interviews before the first of the two debates had been held.
McAdams and Franklin both said they would have liked to have seen a new independent poll conducted after the two television debates. McAdams said he believes the race may have tightened as a result of the debates and as more information is unearthed about the continually-evolving John Doe investigation plaguing the Walker campaign.
Friends in high places
While polls don't win elections, the perception of polls by others often affects how much help your candidate gets from their friends at the national party level, special interest groups and donors.
Walker has raised more than $30 million, mostly from out of state, since January 2011. Barrett has raised $3.9 million since joining the race on March 30. Walker got a head start on fundraising because he was able to raise unlimited funds from individuals while recall signatures were being collected.
In addition to the campaign fundraising, independent groups and special interest organizations have spent a total of $30.5 million, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
McAdams believes the national Democratic Party and other interest groups could have poured more money into the Barrett campaign if polls had predicted a rosier outcome. For example, he said, pro-union groups put their political weight into defeating a restrictive collective bargaining law in Ohio championed by Republican Gov. John Kasich. Ohio voters rejected the new law in a referendum.
In addition to fundraising dollars, national parties and interest groups can also throw their support behind candidates by lending their star power.
Political celebrities sometimes motivate voters to get out to the polls, which is why President Bill Clinton, former Sen. Russ Feingold and Rev. Jesse Jackson have appeared at Barrett campaign events and Walker has received campaign help from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
"Those kinds of appearances really energize campaign supporters and volunteers, and it earns you free media," McAdams said.
Outside of Clinton, McAdams said Barrett has not had as many high-profile visits from fellow Democrats, which he attributes to either a lack of enthusiasm by national Democratic Party officials or a number of ambitious Republican politicians volunteering to scratch Walker's back with a stump speech in hopes that he will somehow return the favor in the future.
Turnout is key
Polls may be influential, but even pollsters like Franklin acknowledge that people — not polls — put politicians in office.
Both the Walker and Barrett campaigns are indeed scrapping for every last vote as they campaign all over the state in the days leading up to Election Day. The GAB predicts 500,000 to 700,000 new voters will cast their ballot in the recall election without having voted in the 2010 gubernatorial election, which means this election will be about getting those who already support your candidate to drive to their polling location.
"The question will be whether either party can capture the majority of those re-entering voters who weren’t voting eight months ago," Franklin said.
Polls also show only 3 percent to 4 percent of voters are undecided. Although the campaigns are focused on getting their engaged supporters out to the polls, the small number of undecided voters still have the attention of each of the campaigns.
"If the race has in fact tightened, a small number of people could tip the election one way or another," McAdams said. "It may only be a few thousand votes, but those votes are worth trying to get."
Part of the small number of undecided voters could be due to the long campaign season, which unofficially started when the first round of Senate recalls began. Even earlier than that, if you count the original 2010 election matchup.
"This is a campaign that’s been going on for close to two years," Franklin said. "Voters have had far more time to make up their minds about these particular candidates."
But isn't it possible that people are fatigued by all of the political news and they will stay home on Election Day?
Not according to McAdams. He said there is a common rule in political science that "politicization begets politicization." Voters absorb the news, become more engaged and then seek out information that reinforces their existing viewpoints.
"In terms of participation or engagement, they aren’t going to withdraw, they are going to be drawn in," he said.
This story was updated at 6:30 p.m. June 4 to reflect recent Barrett campaign events featuring Russ Feingold and Jesse Jackson.