Thursday, May 24, 2012

Is turnout really the key for the Walker recall?

Among the biggest talking points on the current state of the Walker recall is that turnout is key. This is pretty much true for any close election (does any close election loser not think to themselves, “if only I got some more supporters to the polls”?) but historically it is even more critical for recall elections. However, turnout may surprisingly be less important on June 5th.

Generally, fewer people may come out to vote in recall. Unlike a regularly scheduled election, you have to be motivated and want to show up to the ballot box (or get an absentee ballot) to vote on one specific election, usually a local official or a barely known state legislator. There are no people just casting ballot for the race because they were voting for a president, governor or senator. This is one of the reasons that recall proponents have an advantage, as they have spent months garnering supporters and signatures and are in perfect position to use their “machine” and anger to get out the vote (This is also why special elections can be a less-than-ideal democratic solution to a vacancy in office).

Let’s look at the some numbers from past important recalls. In 1995, three California Assembly members faced recalls. Each of these well-publicized elections drew from 25 percent to 35 percent of registered voters, well below the turnout for a general election. Similarly, the Michigan 1983 recalls saw a much smaller electorate. The 2003 Wisconsin Senate recall of Gary George saw only 8% turnout (in a primary in a low turnout district).  Even in some game-changing recalls, the turnout is low. Last year, Arizona state Senate President Russell Pearce faced a recall which took place on election day (albeit a true off year election). Election Day recalls should have higher turnout, and since Pearce was such a lightening rod, you might expect great turnout. Instead, 23,296 people voted, down from 31,023 who voted in the 2010 general election (when it was a safe seat).

Turnout in last year’s Wisconsin Senate recalls were much higher than most recalls, but I believe only one of the Senate seats saw turnout exceed the vote in 2010 (the Senates weren’t up that year, but Craig Gilbert of the Journal Sentinel did a comparison that I used). So even there, turnout was not astonishing.

However, those aren’t the best comparisons. We have to look to Gray Davis. And the Davis recall saw much higher turnout than the 2002 election (9.4 million to 7.7 million). The same thing happened in a non-recall setting with the special election of Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown (2.25 million to 2.16 million in 2006).

With this race, I would think it would be like Gray Davis or Scott Brown. It is not just getting your voters out (the people who aren’t going to come out to vote may just be the hardcore non-voters). The key here may be grabbing those undecideds. The polls seem to bear this out, with a small number of undecideds basically holding the balance of the race (though Walker does seem to be at 50% exactly in most polls). This may be why the narratives have changed so much, from talking about collective bargaining to jobs, and recently with the release of Barrett polls, showing that it is still race.

Turnout is always a popular issue for campaigns. When you think about it, turnout is one of the only tactics that they have real control over. No doubt it is important in this recall, but as opposed to other recalls in the past, it may not make the difference.

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