A Wisconsin Recall FAQ
By John Nichols
June 5, 2012
After 16 months of bitter wrangling over the direction not
just of a state but of the national discourse about economic
policy, budget priorities, the role of labor unions in the
public sector and democracy itself, Wisconsin will decide
today on whether to bounce Governor Scott Walker -- the
primary American proponent of a European-style austerity
agenda based on cuts to wages, benefits, public services and
public education -- from the position to won in the 2010
"Republican Wave" election.
Walker is only the third governor in American history to face
a recall election. And he is the first to be challenged by
progressives. The previous recalls deposed a left-wing
populist (in North Dakota in 1921) and a Democratic mandarin
(in California in 2003). This one could remove a favorite of
the Tea Party movement whose campaigns have been heavily
financed by the billionaire Koch Brothers and their right-
At the same time, control for the Wisconsin legislature could
shift to the Democrats in parallel recall challenges to
Never before in American history has a state been in a
position to shift control of the executive and legislative
branches of state government in a single recall election.
Everything about the Wisconsin recall has been unprecedented.
So how will it finish? Will it finish?
Here's what people need to know:
1. WISCONSIN IS ALWAYS A CLOSELY DIVIDED STATE
Though the recall election was forced by the mass movement
that developed to protest Walker's anti-labor policies --
including a law that stripped most public employees of
essential collective-bargaining rights -- that does not mean
that everyone in Wisconsin is opposed to the governor. More
than 900,000 Wisconsinites signed petitions to recall Walker
-- more than 40 percent of the electorate from the 2010
gubernatorial election -- while more than 800,000 signed
petitions to recall his lieutenant governor and another
100,000 petitioned to recall four Republican state senators.
That's incredible, and if everyone who signed a recall
petition votes, Democrats will be well on their way to
deposing Walker, Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch,
Senator Republican Leader Scott Fitzgerald and three of his
But not all the way there.
The truth is that Wisconsin has since the 1950s been a
closely divided state politically. This is a state of
extremes, home to passionate progressives like former
Governor and Senator Gaylord Nelson and former Senator Russ
Feingold, and conservative firebrand such as former Senator
Joe McCarthy and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan.
Elections are closely fought. In 2000, Al Gore won the state
by just a little more than 5,000 votes out of 2.6 million
cast. In 2004, John Kerry won by barely 11,000 votes out of
almost 3 million cast.
When both sides are mobilized -- as they are this year --
Wisconsin elections are decided by the narrowest of margins.
So, despite the fury at Walker, he could win because he has
energized his Republican base. And it is a big one.
WILL WALKER WIN?
That's what Walker and his amen corner in the media say will
happen. They got some good poll numbers in mid-May and
parlayed them into a sense of inevitability.
But the only people who buy the argument that Walker is a
safe bet to win are national pundits who have not been near
On the ground in Wisconsin, Democrats and Republicans agree
that the race is very close. The pollsters agree: Even those
who say Walker is ahead agree that his "lead" is well within
the margin of error. The latest public poll has the governor
up by three, who internal party polls have shown a dead heat.
WHAT WILL WIN IT?
Walker's money has certainly helped him.
He acknowledges raising more than $30 million and final
figures will probably put him closer to $40 million. His
allies -- the billionaire Koch Brothers, advocates for
privatization of education -- will end up spending $20
million more on so-called "independent" expenditures and
other schemes to advance this candidacy.
Even with significant union support, Barrett's campaign will
end up being outspent by at least 6-1. His allies will spend
millions more. But the Republican advantage is unprecedented
in the modern history of statewide elections.
But Barrett has the advantage of a remarkable grassroots
mobilization on his behalf. It is estimated that, by the time
the polls close, Barrett backers and their allies will have
knocked on 1.2 million doors. Over the weekend, in stops in
Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Racine, Burlington and
Baraboo, Wisconsin -- communities of every size, characters
and partisan make-up -- I say thousands of activists working
phone banks, knocking on doors and distributing literature.
Unions often talk about their "superior ground game." This
time, as AFSCME Council 24 director Marty Beil says, "It's
for real." And it is the key to Barrett's viability.
WHERE DOES BARRETT HAVE TO MOBILIZE VOTERS?
While the Democrat has to renew his party's appeal statewide
-- after the disastrous 2010 election -- his primary focus
is on the Democratic heartlands of Dane County (Madison) and
Milwaukee County, as well as industrial cities such as
Sheboygan and Racine. Statewide, turnout fell from 69
percent in the very strong Democratic year of 2008 to 49
percent in the very Republican year of 2010.
Much of the falloff came within the city of Milwaukee, where
90,000 people who did vote in 2008 did not vote in 2010.
Countywide, 134,000 people who voted in 2008 did not vote in
Scott Walker's winning margin in 2010 was 124,000 votes. A
presidential-level turnout in Milwaukee County could reverse
it with 10,000 votes to spare.
Will that happen? Probably not. Milwaukee turnout will need
to be accentuated by a spike in turnout in Racine, a
historical manufacturing city south of Milwaukee where voting
in 2010 was way off from 2008.
DOES TOM BARRETT KNOW THIS?
Yes. His final schedules stops today are in Milwaukee and
The Rev. Jesse Jackson is on the same rotation.
Bill Clinton came to Milwaukee last Friday. Get it?
SURELY THEY ARE RELYING ON VOTER FRAUD?
Governor Walker and Republican National Committee chairman
Reince Priebus have been claiming that Wisconsin has a major
problem with voter fraud. Both have suggested that
Republicans have been cheated out of as much as two- to
three-percent of the vote in past elections.
Just to be clear: This is pure fantasy. Wisconsin has no
history of serious (or even not-so-serious) voter fraud. Ask
Republican Attorney General JB Van Hollen; after the 2008
presidential election, Van Hollen investigated charges of
illegal voting. He found 20 cases, almost all of which
involved mistakes rather than actual fraud.
SO WHY ARE WALKER AND PRIEBUS PUSHING THIS BOGUS LINE?
They are afraid they could lose. The talk of voter fraud sets
up an argument that, if they do lose, the election was
surely stolen. If the result is close, as could well be the
case, the promotion of the voter fraud fantasy helps to set
up a claim that Republicans were cheated -- as opposed to
REALLY? THAT CLOSE?
Really. Both sides have put top recount lawyers on notice
that their services might be needed. The Democrats have
retained Mark Elias, who guided U.S. Senator Al Franken
through his 2008-2009 recount fight in Minnesota. Wisconsin
law allows for a full recount -- at no cost -- if the margin
in a contested election is less than 0.5 percent. The
governor's race could be that close, as could several of the
state Senate contests.
THIS THING MIGHT NOT BE FINISHED TONIGHT?
And if a recount is required, it will -- like just about
every other aspect of the Wisconsin fight -- be brutal.
YIKES! IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE PEOPLE SHOULD KNOW?
1. There is a an independent candidate in the governor's
race: Hari Trivedi. He has spent a good deal of money
promoting his candidacy. And some polls have suggested that
up to 2 percent for voters might cast ballots for him.
Trivedi's vote, no matter how small, could be a factor in a
close race. It is also possible that a majority of
Wisconsinites could vote to recall Scott Walker and still end
up with Walker as governor -- after the majority split
between Barrett and Trivedi.
2. The state could elect a governor of one party and a
lieutenant governor from the other. Thus. a Democratic
Governor Barrett could serve with a Republican Lieutenant
Governor Kleefisch. Or a Republican Governor Walker could
serve with a Democratic Lieutenant Governor Mahlon Mitchell.
If such a split occurred, the lieutenant governor would
instantly become the leader of the opposition in a deeply
IS THIS RECALL MOMENT GOOD FOR DEMOCRACY?
Scott Walker's amen corner may decry "recall madness."
But, right now, Wisconsin is the most mobilized and energized
state in the country this week.
Election officials say turnout could be as high as 65 percent
-- based on spiked early- and absentee-voting. That's
essentially presidential-level engagement.
While silly pundits (think George Will) and political
insiders moan about election fatigue, you won't find many
actual Wisconsinites complaining. The year-and-a-half long
struggle for worker rights and local democracy -- which began
in February, 2011, and continues to this day -- has created a
level of engagement that is simply unprecedented.
There is anger and passion in Wisconsin, but almost no
apathy. This is as the best of the founders of the American
experiment intended when they gave to future citizens the
right not just to assemble but to petition for the redress of
grievances. It is, as well, what Wisconsin progressives hoped
for, almost a century ago, when they added a broad recall
power to the state Constitution.
"This," as the chants of February and March, 2011, explained,
"is what democracy looks like."
© 2012 The Nation
John Nichols is Washington correspondent for The Nation and
associate editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin.
His most recent book is The "S" Word: A Short History of an
American Tradition. A co-founder of the media reform
organization Free Press, Nichols is co-author with Robert W.
McChesney of The Death and Life of American Journalism: The
Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again and Tragedy
& Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections,
and Destroy Democracy. Nichols' other books include: Dick:
The Man Who is President and The Genius of Impeachment: The
Founders' Cure for Royalism.
Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
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