After the Recall: Six Things We Can Lay to Rest

We’re already hip-deep in analysis of what the results of the Wisconsin recall election will mean – for November, for other states, and for the labor movement. Most of this new conventional wisdom will turn out to be wrong, so instead let’s focus on where the old conventional wisdom was wrong. Here are six things that up until last night were embraced by a lot of people, but we can now safely relegate to the dustbin of poor strategies and indicators.

1) Recalls as a do-over. Republicans started it in California by recalling Gray Davis, primarily because he presided over stubborn budget deficits, and replacing him with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who presided over stubborn budget deficits. We now have Jerry Brown, who presides over stubborn budget deficits. Had Barrett won, not only would Democrats elsewhere have tried to use recalls to reverse losing elections, but Republicans would have jumped on the bandwagon, too. The Walker win probably returns us to regularly scheduled elections.

2) Early exit polls. Despite their unreliability, the reporting of exit polls early on Election Day will not go away. In this age of instant information, most of us simply can’t wait all day on Election Day to see who wins. As long as we demand information, someone will provide it. But after yesterday’s preliminary exit polls showed a 50-50 split, virtually everyone ran with it – only to find themselves calling the race for Walker about an hour later. The main problem this time seemed to be the lack of absentee vote results in the exit poll, which skewed the numbers to Barrett. As it turned out, the average of all the pre-election polls turned out to be the most accurate predictor of the final results.

3) Union GOTV efforts. The storied ability of unions to get people to the polls one way or another, particularly in a state like Wisconsin with same-day registration, is supposed to be the stuff that wins elections. Union activists from coast-to-coast were flown into Wisconsin for that very purpose and all indications are that they did exactly what they set out to do. Barrett picked up almost 160,000 more votes than he did in his loss to Walker in 2010. Turnout was huge in union-friendly areas, including the overheated claim of 119% turnout in Madison.

That was all well and good, but when your electoral map looks like this…

…it’s necessary to account for the union’s lack of geographical diversity. You can’t just hang out in Madison and Milwaukee and concede virtually the rest of the state. The lesson can be equally applied in other states.

4) Union households. I have always thought that “union households” as an indicator of how people will vote is terribly flawed (I was brought up in a union household, for example), but now we have some proof. The Washington Post divvied up the exit poll results by union household AND by union member. They showed that 33% of the electorate was from a union household (with the caveat about the absentee ballots noted above). Union members went 71% for Barrett. But their dependents, spouses, partners, and other members of their household who aren’t themselves union members only went 51% for Barrett. Let’s retire the “household” category and simply divide by members and non-members.

5) Numbers of petition signatures gathered. There was a lot of chest-thumping about the one million signatures gathered to put the recall on the ballot, but despite the massive GOTV effort noted above, it resulted in less than 1.2 million votes for Barrett. Adolf Hitler can sign your recall petition, but he’s probably not going to show up to vote.

6) Union resurgence. All that stuff we heard after the unions’ win in Ohio last November can be set aside until the next time the media declare a union resurgence. Both sides make the same mistake after an election victory. They expect the losers to unconditionally surrender. It won’t happen this time either, but it was still a big, big loss for the labor movement. The endless series of elections and recalls might appear to be bad decisions by the unions in hindsight, but that view fails to take into the account the time factor. Union membership losses have been significant, but they will only grow as contracts ratified before Act 10 took effect expire, and those locals take the same losses. The longer they waited, the weaker they would become, so they had to roll the dice.

In the election’s aftermath, we got our first vague – and probably unreliable – acknowledgment of the extent of membership losses by the Wisconsin Education Association Council. We have this short paragraph from reporter Jason Stein of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

The Wisconsin Education Association Council, which represents most public school teachers, still has two-thirds of its local unions under contract with school districts, said Mary Bell , WEAC’s president. Of the remaining one-third without a contract, about 70 percent are paying dues, Bell said.

If we accept Bell at her word, we can do a little math. The last official numbers we have for WEAC showed 86,456 active, working members. One-third of that is 28,819. Thirty percent of that is 8,646 – or exactly 10 percent of its active membership. I suspect that’s a rosy estimate for losses, but it’s academic now. Now that the recalls are over, we’re likely to see a WEAC in a few years that’s no better than half what it was at its peak.

Public sector unions have finally entered the world that private sector unions have inhabited for many years. It’s not the end of democracy. It’s not Armageddon. Liberal leading light Harold Meyerson wrote in The American Prospect that “before unions, the common form of protest for workers seeking a better life was rioting. That may eventually prove to be the common form of protest after unions, too.” It takes willful ignorance to fail to notice that 93 percent of American private sector workers don’t belong to unions, and they’re not rioting. They are paying taxes, though, and perhaps they now have a tiny measure more say about where that money goes.