Why Wisconsin's recall election matters to Obama and Romney

(L) Democratic Challenger Tom Barrett. (R) Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker Tom Barrett Campaign/Getty

Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, left, and Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker
Tom Barrett Campaign/Getty

Updated 3:10 p.m. ET

(CBS News) In less than a week, voters in Wisconsin decide if they want to keep their Republican governor, Scott Walker, who has been at the forefront of controversial policies that have divided Democrats and Republicans in the state and nationally. But the outcome of the recall election against Democratic challenger Tom Barrett, Milwaukee's mayor, could have much broader implications for the presidential race in November.

"The Wisconsin recall is what the Spanish Civil War was to World War II," Mordecai Lee, a governmental affairs professor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, told Hotsheet. Lee said the state is "a warm up, a testing ground" for the presidential race.

Once again a battleground

Although Wisconsin has voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in every election since 1984, the state is considered a key battleground this year. President Obama beat Republican John McCain by 13 percent in 2008, but Republicans made massive inroads in 2010, winning the governorship and taking control of the state legislature. In addition, Tea Party-backed Ron Johnson defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, a favorite of progressives.

"This state is up for grabs in the recall election and it's up for grabs this fall," said Mike McCabe, Executive Director of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks political spending in elections.

Walker has drawn ire from the left, especially unions, over the bill he signed to curtail collective bargaining rights for public sector workers, which caused weeks of protests in the state last year and boycotts by Democratic lawmakers. The unions and activists collected around one million signatures to bring about the recall, which is nearly half the number of voters who turned out to vote in 2010.

The most recent poll, released Wednesday afternoon by Marquette Law School, says Walker is leading Barrett 52 percent to 45 percent among likely voters. His six point advantage is the same as it was in the Marquette Law School poll released two weeks ago. In the same poll released today, 51 percent support President Obama compared to 43 percent for Mitt Romney. Marquette's previous poll had the presidential candidates tied.

If Walker wins, the Republican Party sees a golden opportunity to reverse the state's Democratic trend in presidential elections. Republican Party officials believe that a win by Walker would leave Democrats deflated, making it difficult for them to get excited for the general election.

"Wisconsin is in play if Walker wins," said Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican National Committee (RNC), in an interview with Hotsheet.

Republican strategist Karl Rove, known for being President George W. Bush's key political strategist, agrees that the stakes are high for November. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, he wrote: "If Gov. Scott Walker survives his June 5 recall by a healthy margin, Wisconsin could also be up for grabs--as it was in 2000 and 2004, when Democrats carried it by extremely narrow margins."

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, said on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday that the recall will have national implications, calling it a "test run."

"I think Tom Barrett will pull this out, but regardless it has given the Obama for America operation an opportunity to do... the dry run that we need of our massive, significant, dynamic grassroots presidential campaign, which can't really be matched by the Romney campaign," she said.

Both Sides Energized

However, Democratic activists say they won't concede to the Republicans even if Walker wins the recall election. Walker's policies have motivated Democratic-aligned unions -- according to AFL-CIO spokesperson Amaya Tune, union head Richard Trumka likes to say that Walker should receive "the mobilizer of the year award."

Democrats have sought to make the recall election a referendum on conservative economic policy, not just in Wisconsin but nationally. Last week, the DNC sent a fundraising appeal to its supporters, which says: "Of all the elections we are preparing for in 2012, one of the most important ones isn't happening in November."

Local and national teachers unions have joined with the public sector union, the American Federation of State, City and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and the AFL-CIO to defeat Walker, spending more than $5 million. National progressive groups are also involved, with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee announcing Tuesday that it has spent another $100,000 on the recall efforts, bringing their total to more than a quarter million dollars.

"He is still very, very unpopular. He took on and attacked workers," Trumka said during a recent interview on C-SPAN's Newsmakers program.

However, it's not only left that is engaged. Conservatives also see this race as crucial to Republican success nationally. The Republican Governors Association has spent more than $8 million in support of Walker and a source within the RNC says it is spending "hundreds of thousands" on the election, hoping, in part, to lay the groundwork for November. Walker has also raised more than $25 million dollars for his own campaign, with about 60 percent of that coming from outside Wisconsin.

Organizational Impact

Both the Republican and Democratic parties can agree that voter outreach and messaging are crucial to winning elections, and both sides think the recall is giving them an advantage.

"The Republican Party probably knows more about you than your spouse," the RNC's Sean Spicer said, referring to a massive effort to identify voter preferences in battleground states including Wisconsin.

However, Graham Zilinski, communications director for the Wisconsin Democratic Party, said the one million signatures gathered to generate the recall has put the Democrats in an advantageous position.

"We got a head start. We built a foundation that usually isn't built until September or October," Zilinski told Hotsheet. "We know who we need to be talking to."

Charles Franklin, visiting professor of Law and Public Policy at Marquette University, noted the impact of the organizational work that has been done by both parties. "Both Democrats and Republicans and their supporting groups have spent the last 16 months organizing around this recall," Franklin said, adding that all of those efforts will be a major asset for Mr. Obama and Romney.

What also helps the candidates is that the Wisconsin electorate is engaged and motivated - two key components to ensure voters turn out to the polls on Election Day.

"The focus is not about persuading, it's mobilizing the base to a white heat of agitation," Mordecai Lee of the University of Wisconsin said. In this election, "everybody has taken sides."

But Charles Franklin of Marquette University is skeptical that the national political parties can sustain such a deep level of engagement. He agrees that Wisconsin is a battleground and that organizational impact will influence the elections in November, while cautioning that the certainty among voters for the recall election is rare, and he's unsure if the presidential candidates will be able to replicate it.

"Romney certainly is not the object of the kind of passion that Walker receives," he said, adding that Mr. Obama's favorability ratings in the Badger State have fallen from 50 percent to 46 percent in just one month.

"It's still unclear whether that kind of division for the June election will be replicated in November," McCabe said.

  • Leigh Ann Caldwell On Twitter»

    Leigh Ann Caldwell is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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