Whether the November election looks more like 2008 or 2010 will determine its outcome. No better political yardstick exists than Wisconsin’s recent recall election. Coming just five months before November, Wisconsin’s race offers few positives for an administration still seeking electoral traction. This time, unlike 1992, “it’s the economy, stupid” doesn’t cover it. Too many are now making the mistake of believing the economy alone will decide this year’s presidential race. Undoubtedly, it’s the most important issue, but there are others. In 1932, the economy truly was the only issue. This year, President Obama is still running in a dead heat against his likely Republican opponent, Mitt Romney.
This election balances on whether it more closely resembles 2008 or 2010. In 2008, Democrats benefited from increased participation percentages from key groups - young voters and minorities - and substantial margins among others. In 2010, Republicans rebounded with increased participation percentages among older voters and whites. There were reasons for both outcomes.
In 2008, Mr. Obama was an ingenue with no record to defend - all promise and no problems. The nation had just entered an economic downturn and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were already several years old. He also faced an older opponent in John McCain, creating the greatest visual contrast since John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
In 2010, Democrats had to run without Mr. Obama on the ticket but were still saddled with his record - most notably, an unpopular health care plan and an underperforming economy.
What better barometer for November than the just-completed Wisconsin recall? A purple swing state, it’s one of a handful that will decide this election. Unlike in 2010, Democrats were motivated. Why else would they risk an unnecessary recall election?
Yet writ large, Republican Gov. Scott Walker won convincingly at the state level. But even by comparing exit poll details of the 2012 Wisconsin results with the 2010 and 2008 national races, we get a no less convincing story.
Among these three races, exit polls captured 19 important groups in seven crucial categories of voters: gender, race, age, party affiliation (Democrat, Independent or Republican), ideology (liberal, moderate or conservative), union membership (yes or no), and region (urban, suburban or rural). The results from the three races shows a clearly ominous trend for Democrats.
In 15 of the 19 groups, the Democrats’ Wisconsin net percentage of voters were closer to their 2010 net national percentage. In eight of these, Democrats’ Wisconsin net percentage were lower than in either of the two national elections. The figures’ sheer negative preponderance makes a compelling case that Democrats’ falling proportion of voters could run well beyond Wisconsin.
Certainly, analysts have raised a number of arguments for why Wisconsin’s recall is not the harbinger it appears. Granted, a lot of money was spent on the election and Republicans received far more of it. However, a lot of money will be spent on this year’s presidential election, too - just as in 2008
(from which Democrats disproportionally benefited). Indications are that Republicans could match or surpass Democrats. That money will be concentrated in swing states, like Wisconsin.
Certainly, the Democrat running in Wisconsin was no Barack Obama. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett already had lost to Mr. Walker in 2010. However, Barack Obama of 2012 is no Barack Obama of 2008, either. He will have far more political baggage than in 2008.
It is true that the issues dominating Wisconsin’s recall election are not necessarily those that will dominate nationally in November. Remember, however, that Democrats picked the fight in Wisconsin. This indicates they thought they had the issue advantage. Also, Mr. Walker ran and won, in part, on his job creation record - an issue unlikely to play well for Mr. Obama this November.
Despite all the contrary arguments, two points stand out clearly. First, America is not going to get a better pre-November snapshot than Wisconsin’s recall tally. Second, that election overwhelmingly indicated it was far closer to the results of 2010 than 2008. That should be very troubling for Democrats, when Mr. Obama is facing his own recall this November.
J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.