Wisconsin recall paradox: Why Obama outpolls Romney despite Walker win

Even as voters in the Wisconsin recall election opted to keep Republican Gov. Scott Walker, exit polling shows Obama beating Mitt Romney there by a healthy margin. One explanation: Some voters felt the recall of a just-elected governor was inappropriate.

Morry Gash/AP
Supporters watch results at the election night rally for Republican Gov. Scott Walker in Tuesday's recall election, June 5, in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

President Obama got some good news in the Wisconsin recall election, even as the Democrats failed to oust Republican Gov. Scott Walker: The president polled ahead of Mitt Romney by a wide margin – 51 percent to 44 percent, according to the exit poll conducted by Edison Research.   

That spread matches Governor Walker’s seven-point margin over Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Democratic nominee in Tuesday’s recall election. Five months before the general election, Wisconsin voters also preferred Mr. Obama over Mr. Romney to deal with the economy, 43 percent to 37 percent, according to the ABC News exit poll. On “helping the middle class,” Obama beat Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, 47 percent to 36 percent.

Obama’s lead over Romney is smaller than his 14-point victory over John McCain four years ago in Wisconsin, a battleground state that political observers still tend to see as leaning Democratic. But given the struggling economy, it’s no surprise that Obama has lost altitude there, as he has nationally.

Still, “in a race portrayed as potentially indicative of the president’s fortunes five months from now, it showed that he can remain competitive even in the face of the still-weak economy he’d pledged to repair,” writes ABC pollster Gary Langer.

So why the apparent disconnect?

First, there’s a big difference between a recall vote and a regularly scheduled election. A solid majority of Wisconsin voters – 60 percent – said recall elections are appropriate only in cases of “official misconduct,” according to the Edison exit poll. Some 27 percent said recalls are OK for any reason, and 10 percent said they’re never acceptable.

In addition, Wisconsin has a strong bipartisan tradition, with a history of ticket-splitting. According to the Washington Post, Walker won 17 percent of Obama supporters, while Mayor Barrett won 6 percent of Romney supporters. Exit polling showed 54 percent of Wisconsin voters approved of Walker’s performance on job creation and 52 percent approved of the recent changes to state law limiting the ability of government workers to collectively bargain over pay and benefits. Wisconsin’s unemployment rate, 6.7 percent in April, is below the national average.

Team Obama took some comfort in the exit polls. On Tuesday night, top campaign strategist David Axelrod tweeted, “Bad night in Boston...WI raises big questions for Mitt,” with a link to a news report on exit polling showing Obama beating Romney in Wisconsin. Romney’s campaign headquarters is in Boston.

But there’s no denying bad news in the mix for Obama in Walker’s victory. The labor movement’s failure to oust the Wisconsin governor has only enhanced its image of decline.  And a dispirited labor movement, important for Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts, can’t help but hurt Obama. The November outcome is expected to hinge on which side does a better job of turning out its base voters.

Democrats sought to minimize the blow to labor and how it could affect Obama’s reelection prospects.

“It doesn’t help Obama, but it also doesn’t hurt much,” said a Democratic strategist, speaking on background. “There’s no question that labor makes a difference, but it’s more of a long-term problem.”

One Republican analyst sees bigger implications for labor and Obama.

“The loss will ... drive a wedge between President Obama and organized labor, which cannot be pleased at the indifference Obama showed toward this race,” writes Peter Wehner on the Commentary magazine website, noting that Barrett was one of Obama’s earliest supporters in 2007. “The president wasn’t there when organized labor needed him. They are likely to return the favor in November.”

Indeed, Obama opted not to campaign for Barrett, and endorsed him only the day before the election, via Twitter. But then, Romney did not campaign for Walker, either. 

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