4:48 pm Jun. 6, 20122
A conversation with Salon political writer Steve Kornacki about what the Wisconsin recall vote actually tells us about the presidential election.
Josh: I saw one write-up of Wisconsin this morning that said the "recall vote was viewed as a harbinger of the national mood" for the presidential election and then, right afterward, that exit polls of the voters who kept Scott Walker in office also showed Obama comfortably ahead of Romney.
Steve: I understand the impulse to call it a harbinger. Walker's a very conservative union-busting Republican. What kind of voter would want to give him two more years, then turn around and give four more to Obama?
But I think those voters are real. Maybe some of them are just offended by the concept of recalls. Or maybe they bought into Walker's narrative, which is that he made a tough, principled stand in an effort to address Serious Problems that most politicians ignore, even if they don't actually agree with him on most issues. The Christie effect, I guess.
Whatever it is, the same pre-election polls that consistently showed Walker leading also put Obama up by similar margins. He's not going to win the state by 14 points, like he did in '08, and if Romney ever opens up a real national lead, Wisconsin could definitely be in play. But at this point, Obama is still the clear favorite to take it, and to the extent he's having trouble he wasn't having four years ago, it's because of the economy, not recall politics.
Josh: It reminds me a little bit of New York, in a way. I think pro-Walker-and-pro-Obama thing is only a paradox if you actually believe the recall was just about "the right" and "the left," and people who hate unions versus people who love them.
Is the fact that some pro-Obama voters stuck with Walker any more remarkable than the fact that Andrew Cuomo's approval rating in New York, a state that voted for Obama over McCain 62-37, has only gone up after he took on (politically vulnerable) unions here?
Steve: To me, the thing Cuomo has done is to keep the level of angry noise down. The union stuff is an example of him doing something that Republicans actually like, so you don't have Republican leaders (and Republican-friendly media outlets and commentators) fighting him every day and delivering the message to rank-and-file Republicans that opposing Cuomo is part of being in he tribe. At the same time, he's also done it in a way that has (generally) minimized the noise from the left.
The way Walker approached collective bargaining, the ideological and political motives were obvious. He wanted to sap unions of their electoral clout and delegitimize then. Cuomo's being tough with unions, but he also communicates with them and frames what he's doing as purely budget-driven. He's signaling a basic level of respect that Walker never did, and obviously he gets some benefit of the doubt just from his party label.
Josh: Oh, I don't think there's any comparison between Cuomo and Walker in terms of the level of tact and political skill each of them is capable of. But I think they both hit on formulas in Obama-leaning states that have worked for them without necessarily indicating anything all that useful about the disposition of those states in the next presidential election.
I'm wondering if the Walker vote is any more significant as a presidential-election bellwether, or any less ephemeral, than the stock-market surge over the past two days.
Steve: I think that's right. Voters send ideologically mixed, confusing, indecipherable messages all the time. I think one of the worst ways to handicap an election is to compare a candidate's positions on whatever the most important issues supposedly are to where public opinion is on those issues. It doesn't follow that the candidate who is more in line with the public will win. All sorts of other factors come into it.
With Walker, I suspect it's the Christie thing: the sense among some that "he's a leader" and that we need someone making tough decisions during tough times. I think he illustrates that there's a limited but potentially crucial opportunity for an incumbent in a highly polarized environment to win over some swing voters by coming across as a "strong leader," whatever exactly that means.
There's not a magic formula for this, or that all Obama has to do is get angry, pound lecterns and attack Republicans and voters will respond. Behavior that seems strong coming from one politician could seem silly coming from another.
But nationally, Obama is in about the same situation Walker was in in Wisconsin. Most voters had their minds made up, but there were some swing voters. My guess is that Walker appealed to them in a way that doesn't have to do with ideology or issue positions. (Or, again, it could have been their aversion to the idea of recalls.)
Josh: Any useful national lessons from elsewhere yesterday, then? California? New Jersey?
Steve: Bill Clinton's revenge tour claims another victim: Steve Rothman, a 22-point (!) loser to Bill Pascrell n NJ-9.