Scott Walker may have won the legislative battle over collective bargaining, but the political damage from the Wisconsin standoff as well as similar battles in other states could follow Republicans all the way to 2012.
Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana are each embroiled in battles with unions, each are considered battleground presidential states, and each swung hard right in the midterm elections after going for Obama in 2008. Political observers suggest that a newly re-energized union vote could have a profound impact in all three states the next time around — and perhaps across the country.
“Given the intensity of emotion that Wisconsin has generated, supplemented by actions in other states, it’s very possible that there will be ripple effects all the way to November 2012,” Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, told TPM. “Unions see this struggle as life-or-death, so they are bound to put extra resources into the swing states that are the epicenter of this controversy.”
Sabato cautioned that Democratic gains might be offset by Republicans getting fired up as well, but given the significant “enthusiasm gap” between the two last November, any boost in turnout is likely a net gain for Democrats.
“It could be that higher turnout all around in 2012 will be the main result, though Democrats tend to gain more when turnout goes up since it means that more minorities and young people are participating,” he said.
Certainly firing up union households could be a boon — they made up only 17% of the electorate in 2010, down from 21% in 2008. Democrats’ hold on their votes is hardly ironclad either, with only 59% of union households backing Obama in his first presidential race. In an analysis of the union vote’s overall impact, Nate Silver determined that a gain of even a few percentage points in support could prove a significant obstacle to Republican presidential hopes.
The most dramatic mobilization so far has been in Wisconsin, where tens of thousands of protestors have helped organize voters across the state and may even trigger recall elections against some state legislators. Walker’s approval ratings have sunk significantly thanks in no small part to a decline in backing from union households — in one PPP poll, only 33% of union households said they would support Walker in a rematch against his Democratic opponent, down from 40% who say they backed him in 2010.”
With recapturing the legislature Wisconsin Democrats’ only hope of reversing the collective bargaining law signed by Walker last week, the party should have little trouble convincing their base of the election’s importance.
“GOP excitement in 2010 was, of course, also a crucial part of their sweep in the state, but Dem drop off played a role as well,” Charles Franklin, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, told TPM. “In 2012 the Presidential race will mobilize Dems as well as the current union controversy. So the question will be can the GOP and tea party continue to turn out large conservative blocks as well. ”
There could be other fringe benefits to the shift as well. Walker’s position on collective bargaining rights has polled badly on a national level, but has made him an icon in conservative circles. As Ron Brownstein notes at National Journal, the current field of presidential hopefuls have so far been forced to follow Republican governors’ leads on policy in order to avoid being outflanked on the right, but the exercise also ties them to more extreme and politically harmful positions. Continued Walker-like dramas could back the primary field into a corner that’s tough to leave once they reach the general election.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.