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Two keys in Walker recall vote

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Steven Walters
March 9, 2012

Meet the Undecideds.


They answer the pollsters’ questions about Gov. Scott Walker—Approve? Disapprove? Should he be recalled?—with “don’t know,” “don’t have enough information” or by refusing to give their opinion.


Although polls repeatedly put their number at between 3 percent and 6 percent of potential voters in a Walker recall election, the Undecideds will be one of two factors deciding whether the first-term Republican governor stays on the job or is the third governor in U.S. history to be removed. The other factor deciding Walker’s future will be how well each side executes its get-out-the-vote drives, according to political professionals. More on that later.


Those two factors could determine Walker’s fate because other Wisconsin voters have their minds made up on Walker and are equally divided on him. Variations in answers to poll questions on Walker often fall within that poll’s margin of error.


And whether you like or hate Walker, you are so committed to that position your opinion won’t be changed by the barrage of TV ads attacking and praising the governor—a barrage that could cost $50 million or more. Two new examples of just how polarized Wisconsin is over Walker were in the Marquette University Law School statewide poll released last week:


? Question Q6: Overall, do you approve or disapprove of the way Scott Walker is handling his job as governor? Results: Approve, 47 percent; disapprove, 47 percent; don’t know, 4 percent; refused, 1 percent.


? Question Q12: Please tell me if you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Scott Walker or if you haven’t heard enough about him yet to have an opinion. Results: Favorable, 46 percent; unfavorable, 48 percent; haven’t heard enough, 4 percent; don’t know, 1 percent.


The Marquette Law School poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percent.


Who are those Undecideds? The limited poll data available suggests that they are of all ages and only marginally interested in politics. That won’t stop special-interest groups from targeting them with millions of dollars in campaign ads, however.


Asked about the Undecideds last week, UW-Madison Political Science Professor Barry Burden said:


“It is true that the state’s electorate has developed strong opinions about the governor, with about equal numbers supporting and opposing him. This makes movement on the margins all the more important for winning public opinion and elections.


“The 5 percent or so who are undecided will get a lot of attention in the upcoming recall because of the pivotal role they play. They are generally less interested and informed than the rest of the electorate. But they are also less swayed by simple cues such as partisanship and ideology.


“They are actually more likely to vote based on how the incumbent is performing, particularly on the economy. Memorable ads can also be effective. But you can expect many of the ads to focus on the economy and state budget, so the two factors are not independent.”


The second factor—voter turnout in a recall-Walker vote—may be a more decisive factor than Undecideds, however, Burden added.


He explained why: “It is easier for a party to mobilize its supporters than it is to persuade and turn out undecideds. We should expect a lot of effort put into get-out-the-vote efforts and negative ads to lower the enthusiasm levels of the other side. Gov. Walker won the 2010 election in part because many Democrats who voted in 2008 did not participate in the midterm election.”


Voter turnout numbers in recall elections of state senators last year prove the importance of get-out-the-vote efforts—especially for special elections held in the summer.


Seven Senate recall elections last summer attracted an average of only 62 percent of voters who participated in the last regular elections in those districts, for example. In one of those districts—the 30th, where Democratic Sen. Dave Hansen kept his seat—the vote total in the recall was only 40 percent of the number of votes cast in the 2008 regular election.


The next recall elections—for governor, lieutenant governor and up to four Republican state senators—will likely occur this summer. That is especially true if a Dane County judge again extends the deadline for the Government Accountability Board to review signatures on recall petitions for fraud and duplication.


Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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