The Wisconsin special gubernatorial recall election next Tuesday is the most important election of the campaign season to date. It will tell us a lot about the 2012 presidential race. And there will be policy repercussions because of it, in states all across the country.
At issue is whether Wisconsin should continue to move away from the Blue Social Model or not. The names on the ballot are Governor Scott Walker (R) and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D). But they are basically proxies for a larger policy battle. Simply put: Governor Walker is a vote against and away from Big Blue, Mayor Barrett is an affirmation of it.
The last time Wisconsinites voted on Big Blue was in April of 2011. The "race" back then was a special State Supreme Court Justice election. A vote for the incumbent (the swing vote on the 7-person Wisconsin Supreme Court) meant that Governor Walker's proposed attack on Wisconsin's Blue Social Model — dramatic reductions of the power of public sector labor unions — would go forward. A vote against the incumbent meant that the Walker plans would be stopped dead in their tracks.
The results of that election were exceptionally close. The morning after, in fact, it appeared that the conservative incumbent had lost by a whisker. He later was proclaimed the winner when the votes from the town of Brookfield were properly included in the Waukesha County tabulation. Brookfield had somehow been left out of the original Waukesha count.
You can see just how close this election was by clicking here (scroll down to Spring 2011 Election Cycle and open up the county-by-county Excel spreadsheet, which has both the first tally and the recount tally). These results will serve as a very useful baseline for this coming Tuesday's count. If Gov. Walker outperforms, consistently, across the county table, that will be read as a decisive defeat for Labor and its allies in the Democratic Party. A Walker "outperform" will also mean that Wisconsin is "in play" in the presidential election. Which in turn will mean that "likely" and "lean" Democratic states like Minnesota and Iowa will no longer be seen as "likely" or "lean" Democratic.
If Gov. Walker under-performs, then it will be a huge win for the Liberal-Labor coalition. The Obama campaign will feel the warm rush of political valium, soothing their November jitters. Everyone expects Gov. Walker to win this election, despite the razor-thin margins of every special election that has been held across Wisconsin since the 2010 general election. The polls say he will win by 6 percentage points, at least. So a Walker defeat on Tuesday would be the biggest story of all.
Is there any chance that Barrett can pull off an upset? Probably not. If he was leading in the polls, President Obama would be campaigning for him this weekend. The fact that the president is not campaigning for him this weekend means two things: (1) Barrett is behind in Team Obama polling by more than the margin of error, and (2) a presidential appearance would not provide enough of a lift for Barrett to make the difference. So, using the Obama test, Mr. Barrett is a goner.
The key to this election, however, is not really whether Governor Walker wins. More or less everyone expects him to do that. The key is how much he wins by. The crude calculation is this: Walker defeat equals certain Obama win in November. Walker win by 1-5 percentage points equals very close presidential general election (nationally). A Walker win by 6 points or more equals Mitt Romney is the favorite to win in November.
The entire political world will be running the numbers Tuesday night. Truly important elections don't come along that often. This one matters.