By now you’ve had your fill of the Spanking in Wisconsin (not quite the “The Thrilla in Manila” — but close), as Republicans crowed about what the re-election of Gov. Scott Walker really meant and labor leaders, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and more Obama campaign surrogates than one could count did their level best to spin themselves into believing what the defeat of Mayor Tom Barrett didn’t mean.
To be sure, the election had something for everyone: vindication for Republicans as labor suffered a thoroughly humiliating rebuke for their overreaching; affirmation for Walker as his margin of victory (53% - 46%) surprised even the best of pundits; a breath of optimism for Democrat’s as they took control of the state Senate; and, expectation of things to come (or at least hoped for) for Barack Obama as he beat Mitt Romney in exit polling (51% - 44%).
But despite the highs and lows of Tuesday’s results, there were also a few lessons to be learned.
Let’s start with Lesson One: never underestimate what the people think about you or your issue. While 52% of Wisconsin voters said they support unions, over a third of union households supported the Other Guy. On the question of collective bargaining, 50% of the voters indicated they supported the changes to state law that limits collective bargaining for government workers. (Wasn’t that what this fight was about in first place?!) For many voters the recall effort was just a bad idea as 60% said they should only be used for official misconduct.
Lesson Two: It may not be the money after all. Yes, Walker raised only $30 million while Barrett raised $7 million with outside sources (affectionately known as Super PACS) contributed the remainder of the $63 million. The lament about Super PACs and the influence of money in politics generally, and Wisconsin in particular, belie the fact that close to 90% of the voters on election day said they had made up their minds long before the ad wars had begun. In short, all of those big bucks from faceless donors did very little to move the vote one way or the other on Election Day. So much for that.
Lesson Three: Don’t let the bright lights of victory blind you. There is no doubt Walker’s victory lifted the GOP like no other race since New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (‘09) and Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (‘10) won their respective races. The energy and excitement on election night was contagious — almost intoxicating. But, Wisconsin was just skirmish in the larger war for the direction of our nation’s economy. Bold predictions of a GOP sweep of the state Senate seats — coming off of the decisive win of the governor early on election night — were short-lived as the GOP saw its hold on the Wisconsin Senate slip through its fingers. Moreover, even bolder predictions about what Walker’s victory means for the presidential election this fall must not distract Republicans in Wisconsin or elsewhere around the country from the real and difficult opportunity to defeat Obama. (Recent polls have Obama and Romney tied 43% - 43%.) There is something to be said for not getting too cocky — even in politics. Mr. Romney must still define himself, what his leadership will mean to the country and how his vision of the future embraces the freedoms and opportunities that have come to define the American Dream.
Lesson Four: Don’t let the glare of defeat blind you, either. Speaking of cocky, the Obama team has to be reeling as they watched their labor buddies get clocked by the Walker-GOP right cross. From dollars raised and spent to the even more important organization and boots on the ground, the vaunted labor election machine appeared to slam into the GOP wall. Certainly, voter turnout for both the Walker and Barrett campaigns was at presidential levels, but on election night it became clear some of the voters who were turned out for Barrett had something else in mind. (See Lesson One.)
The president needn’t hang his head too low, however, as the voters did offer a bit of a silver lining. In the exit polling head-to-head matchup against Romney, the president posted a 7 point lead in Wisconsin. But even in a state the president won in 2008, the weight of a still anemic economy, poor job growth and the foreboding sense that the future doesn’t look any better than today, will shrink that lead to nothing before the Brats gets cold.
What this means for Romney and Obama is neither one of them can count out nor count on a volatile electorate to win. It appears both campaigns will actually have to work for our votes this November.
Which brings me to the Final Lesson: Making a candidate actually work for our vote is a very good thing indeed.
Michael Steele served as the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee. He is a former lieutenant governor of Maryland and a political commentator. He will be providing commentary on all things politics for BET.com each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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