I don’t consider myself an expert on elections but there are a few observations worth making about Tuesday’s recall vote in Wisconsin that I don’t see being emphasized too much. So here goes.
1. The issue was not “labor versus management.” Editorial writers steeped in memories of the 1930s inevitably portray the contemporary rebellion against public employees’ unions as a replay of the top-hats-versus-factory-workers of yore. It is no such thing. The issue is the public sector versus private economy. Building trades and other private sector unions have openly supported Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and one-third of union members in Wisconsin voted against the recall. Unionized or not, private sector workers have no interest in seeing public sector workers pile up retirement and health benefits at their expense. The old union-versus-management arm-wrestle has no relevance in the era of runaway government.
2. Exit polls are irrelevant. After seeing exit polls elect John Kerry President in 2004, you’d think liberals would learn. But no, once again there was premature celebration. There’s a simple reason for all this. As John Fund writes, the average Republican is now a hard-working, middle-income person who feels excluded from all the media brouhaha in Washington and New York. Quite simply, except for Fox News, they don’t trust the press. The average exit-poll taker, on the other hand, is a hyper-articulate graduate student who exudes liberalism. Republicans simply aren’t going to reveal their preferences to these people, whereas the average liberal is not only dying to sound off but wants to know where the television cameras are. Thus, the ridiculous figure that the people who failed to recall Governor Walker also favor President Obama by 7 points. Does anyone really believe this? Actually, let’s hope Democrats do. Let them be surprised in November.
3. Democrats are good at organizing, Republicans just vote. In his victory speech, Governor Walker proved a disappointment, rambling on about the Great State of Wisconsin and promising to meet the opposition over brats and beer. It was Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch who grasped the nettle. “This is what democracy looks like!” she told her cheering supporters, who knew the line well enough to recite it along with her. For those who don’t remember, that was the slogan of the motley throngs that stormed the state capital last winter, blocking traffic, threatening public officials, and generally trying to bring democracy to a halt — just as their leaders had done by fleeing the state rather than attend the opening session. Actually, all this had much more in common with 1930s-style putsches and Third World coups than anything from the history of American politics. Democracies work, not because winners win elections, but because the losers are willing to accept the results rather than resorting to extra-electoral means. Wisconsin Democrats proved to be closer to their counterparts in Venezuela or Uganda than to anything in American history. Fortunately, in this country the voters still bat last. Let’s hope it stays that way.
4. Madison represents the new Democratic core. For better or worse, the founding fathers of Wisconsin situated their state capital in the same city with the state university, always a risky proposition. This has made Wisconsin a laboratory of “Progressivism,” meaning the home of a professoriate eager to intervene in the economy and grow the government. Thus it wasn’t at all surprising to see Madison as the biggest Democratic stronghold on election night. What has changed since the 1920s, however, is that Progressivism is no longer a rump faction of scruffy college professors but a sleek propaganda machine manned by overpaid academics and affluent employees of “non-profit NGOs” — which translates “non-taxpaying extensions of the government.” They are a powerful and prosperous constituency. I’m a class agent for my New England college and last winter I ended up talking to a classmate who teaches at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and interacts with NGOs around the world. He spent the first half of the conversation calling Governor Walker a “thug” and a “lunatic” and the second half telling me about his retreat in the Caymans. “There are only 2,000 people on the island,” he exuded. “It’s a great getaway.” Welcome to today’s Democratic Party.
5. The Democrats’ “ground game” is overrated. Transparently, the Obama campaign is hoping to divide the electorate into four targeted segments — women, blacks, Hispanics, college students — and then get them all out to the polls in unprecedented numbers. They’ve already laid the groundwork with same-day registration and no-voter-ID laws in several key states. Heck, with all that you could probably vote at 15 different polling places without anyone ever noticing. But Democrats are going to find that people don’t think of themselves exclusively as “blacks” or “women” or “Hispanic Americans.” Believe it or not, there are women who feel burdened by government taxes and regulation. There are African Americans who aren’t excited about gay marriage but certainly care about school choice for their children. There are even Hispanics whose minds occasionally wander to the subject that Obama wants everyone to forget — the economy. Divide-and-pander is a poor way to win a national election. As Democrats found out last Tuesday, passionate self-interest groups can only carry you so far.
6. Wisconsin may be a template for next November. The press is already dismissing the recall as an out-of-the-way sideshow in a remote state where Democrats didn’t have their best game. The New York Times editorial page even opined that the good guys lost when “labor failed to nominate its preferred candidate last month” — that would be Stanford-educated NGO attorney Kathleen Falk who lost 58-34 to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in the primary! Don’t bother them. They live in a bubble. Actually, Election Night in November could end up looking a lot like Wisconsin in June. Romney and Obama will go into the last week neck-and-neck, with Obama polling slightly ahead. Early exit polls will show him winning handily — then, WHAM! Where did all these people come from? That’s the great American electorate, folks, once again telling the hyper-articulate, hyper-organized pundits and professoriate that they’ve had it with big government.