Moment of Decision

Turnout models favor Republican incumbent in Wisconsin recall

June 4, 2012

WAUWATOSA, Wis. — Turnout will be the key to Wisconsin’s gubernatorial recall election on Tuesday—and polls and early voting suggest Republican Gov. Scott Walker holds an edge over Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Ensuring Walker maintains that edge is the job of Jason Pipes.

He is one of thousands of grassroots activists engaged in Wisconsin’s divisive June 5 recall elections.

Pipes, 38, drives a hulking 1974 Pinzgauer all-terrain military utility vehicle. Pro-Walker signs line the side of the truck, and the bed is filled with boxes of Walker yard signs and stickers. He sports a Walker hat and t-shirt.

As the truck lumbered through the streets of Wauwatosa, a suburb of Milwaukee, on Saturday evening, Pipes talked about the "non-stop political football" that has consumed the state for a year and a half.

Nearly three million people—between 60 and 65 percent of the voting age population—are expected to cast ballots on Tuesday, according to Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board, which oversees the state’s elections.

Those numbers would be higher than in the 2010 elections (50 percent) but lower than in 2008 (69 percent).

Speaking to reporters on Sunday, former Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold said he believed Barrett would prevail if turnout exceeds 2010 levels.

"[Walker] didn't win by an overwhelming margin in 2010, and we know that by all estimates, it's going to be a higher turnout than 2010. It won't be as great as 2008," Feingold said. "But we also know that those people that will be voting are going to be tilted heavily to Barrett. You know, the other side maxed out with their people in 2010. They had extremely good turnout."

However, Christian Schneider, a fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, said he doesn’t "necessarily buy the argument" that higher turnout is bad for Walker.

"This recall is so unprecedented, and we just don’t know who is out there and how they think," he said.

Schneider pointed to Democrats’ earlier efforts in 2011 to recall several Republican state senators. Two GOP state senators, Sheila Harsdorf and Alberta Darling, not only survived the recall but also increased their margins of victory from 2008.

Harsdorf defeated teacher’s union-activist Shelley Moore 58 percent to 42 percent, increasing her margin of victory from the 56 percent she received against another Democrat in 2008.

Darling drubbed her opponent by eight points after winning in 2008 by only one point.

"The numbers were just off the charts," Schneider said. "And you normally wouldn’t see that. I think there are areas in this state where people are just tired of the whole thing and ready to go vote for Walker."

Democrats may be hamstrung by an enthusiasm gap. Running unopposed in the May 8 recall primary, Walker received 626,538 votes, more than the two main Democratic candidates combined.

That total is also more than all the GOP candidates combined in the contested 2010 GOP primary, and the highest voter turnout for a gubernatorial primary in 60 years.

"Walker has close to a 100 percent chance of winning if the turnout model reflects 2010 and perhaps even 2008 levels," Brian Sikma of Media Trackers, a non-profit conservative watchdog group in Wisconsin, told the Free Beacon. "But at this point we’re seeing turnout below 2008 levels, and early voting is still below 2010 levels."

Early voting in Wisconsin has tended to favor Democrats.

According to a May 30 Marquette University Law poll, 92 percent of Wisconsin Republicans are "absolutely certain to vote" on June 5, while only 77 percent of Democrats say the same.

Democrats’ efforts to fire up their base have not matched the resources they are pouring into the recall campaign, Sikma said.

"If I was a Democratic operative, I would be frustrated right now because we’re going out there, we’re spending all this money, we’re bringing in some of the heavy hitters of our party to fire people up in the last couple of days," Sikma said.

Both sides have invested in Wisconsin, spending $63.5 million in the state’s most expensive election ever. We Are Wisconsin, a labor-backed independent group that has spent millions on the recall effort, said its canvassers knocked on more than 250,000 doors on Saturday.

However, Walker has outraised Barrett more than 7 to 1, hauling in $30.5 million in contributions. The cash advantage is something the incumbent governor did not enjoy during last year’s recall initiative, or when he first appeared on the ballot against Barrett in 2010.

Walker has also prevailed in attracting national politicians to the state. Conservative figures such as Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey have all travelled to the Badger State to support Walker.

Barrett got a boost with an appearance by former president Bill Clinton, but has been spurned by President Obama, who neglected to appear in Wisconsin despite being just across the border in Minneapolis last Friday.

Walker has also consistently led Barrett by at least four points in independent polls over the past two months. Even Democratic internal polls give him a two-point lead over Barrett.

Republicans are not taking anything for granted, Priebus said.

"I’m not going to play into this narrative that Democrats are giving up because I don’t care," Priebus told reporters at a tea party rally in rural Caledonia Saturday. "We’re going to move at 180 miles an hour. We’re going to run all the way through the finish line because that’s what it’s going to take."

Nevertheless, conservatives are cautiously optimistic about Tuesday.

"With that cash advantage, and with turnout not what it should be for Democrats, that speaks to a pretty good chance for Walker," Sikma said.

As he trundles through the streets of Wauwatosa, Pipes, the Republican grassroots activist, sees good signs as well.

"Honestly, in the past couple of days, I’ve gotten more cheers and thumbs up than middle fingers," Pipes said.