Framed: How Redefining Direct Democracy as Anti-Democratic Won Wisconsin

Framed: How Redefining Direct Democracy as Anti-Democratic Won Wisconsin

Framed: How Redefining Direct Democracy as Anti-Democratic Won Wisconsin

Wisconsin voters were fans of recall elections at the start of the process but opposed at the end. The reason? A sly big-spending campaign by Scott Walker’s supporters that went essentially unanswered by Democrats.


Now that the dust has settled following last Tuesday’s Wisconsin recall election, the most remarkable line of spin to have gained traction is the notion that Scott Walker won in large part because Wisconsinites did not like direct democracy.

Pundits and polls seized on exit poll numbers that suggested that voters were fundamentally opposed to recall elections. Only 27 percent of voters who participated in the June 5 election between Walker, the state’s controversial anti-labor governor, and Democratic challenger Tom Barrett, told exit pollsters that they thought recall elections were appropriate for any reason. Sixty percent said recall elections should only be held in cases of official misconduct, while 10 percent said recall elections should never be held.

So it sounds like the big mistake was forcing Wisconsinites to vote in a type of election that offended their sense of sense of political propriety and fairness.

That’s an easy spin, especially for political insiders on both sides of the partisan aisle who have no taste for direct democracy.

Unfortunately for those who seek actual answers, it is wrong.

Or to be more precise, the anti-recall sentiment was manufactured by a very smart, very effective and very expensive campaign by Governor Walker and his allies.

When the Wisconsin fight started, polls suggest, recalls were popular. In fact, the recall process polled significantly better than any of Walker’s prospective opponents—including his eventual challenger, Barrett, and the preferred challenger of many Democrats, former US Senator Russ Feingold.

A St. Norbert College/Wisconsin Public Radio poll of Wisconsin voters, conducted in early November as United Wisconsin’s people-powered petition drive to force the recall elections was being launched, asked if voters supported using the recall to remove Walker from office. Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed said “yes,” while 38 percent rejected the use of the recall to remove the governor. (Notably, President Obama’s re-elect number in that polls was exactly the same as it was in June 5 exit polling—51 percent—suggesting that this was not an anomalous group of electors.)

In January of 2012, when the recall petitions were filed, the Marquette University Law School Poll asked Wisconsin voters: “Regardless of how you would vote if a recall election were held, do you think the recall process should be changed to allow recalls only in cases of criminal wrongdoing, or should it be kept as it is currently with no such restrictions?”

The answer: 53 percent of those surveyed said the recall provision should be “kept as it is currently with no such restrictions,” while just 43 percent said recalls should be allowed “only in cases of criminal wrongdoing.”

What changed over the ensuing months?

The Walker campaign and its political allies spent millions of dollars on an aggressive television and direct mail advertising campaign that said “End the Recall Madness.” Ads aired statewide featured Wisconsinites saying the recall was “not the Wisconsin way,” and that Wisconsin was seeing “millions of dollars spent on a recall that I don’t believe is going to solve a problem at all.” The ads actually featured people—who were presumably planning to vote in the recall—griping that recalls “diminish the value of a vote” and that with recalls “your vote really doesn’t count.”

“Wisconsin agrees,” concluded a pro-Walker ad from the Coalition for American Values. “This recall isn’t right.”

That shadowy Virginia-based group spent at least $300,000 in the final days of the campaign to air those ads. (In fact, the figure could be significantly higher, as the “coalition” is a so-called “dark money” group that announces on its website: “Coalition for American Values is registered with the Federal Election Commission as an independent expenditure committee. Accordingly, we may accept unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations, and other organizations. Your contribution is not subject to FEC limits.”)

But the “coalition” spending represented only the beginning of the specifically anti-recall spending in Wisconsin. The Tea Party Express project aired ads that associated the term “recall” with “harassment” and “intimidation” declared: “Things have gone too far.”

Walker’s $35 million campaign began with a multimillion-dollar ad buy that described recalls as “sour grapes” and finished with the message: “Progress: Yes. Recall: No.

In addition to the ads, and a $5 million direct-mail push, the governor used dozens of appearances on television programs to drive home the anti-recall theme: “A minority of voters will get to force a new election in Wisconsin…costing millions of dollars to the taxpayers this spring,” Walker griped during a CNBC appearance last November. That appearance also saw him suggest he would win “because every week, every day, every week, every month that goes by, our numbers get better because our story gets out.”

That’s exactly what happened.

Scott Walker ran hard against Tom Barrett and the Democrats, but he ran harder against the recall. That moved numbers—as the governor suggested would be the case. But while Democrats and unions defended Barrett, they never mounted a parallel campaign to argue the merits of the the recall as an accountability tool. The decision of Democratic strategists to run a predictable “nationalized” campaign, with a predictable combination of soft messaging on issues and slashing attacks on the incumbent, lost sight of the essential message of the movement: “This is what democracy looks like.” The failure to explain and defend direct-democracy reforms of the progressive era—which empowered citizens to petition for recalls, referendums and initiatives—allowed the Walker camp and its allies to redefine recalls as somehow anti-democratic.

So it was that an electorate that favored Wisconsin’s recall rules by wide margins at the start of the campaign ended up opposing the process at the end. Give Walker credit. He was smart enough to run against not just his declared opponent but the process itself. But don’t miss the point that his early and effective advertising campaign went unanswered, and that this failure played a huge role in preserving the governor’s position.

To think otherwise is to imagine that campaign messaging and money have no meaning. In fact, money and messaging has huge meaning.

No one seriously questions that Walker won the money campaign—his campaign had a 7–1 advantage over Barrett’s at the close of the campaign. But the more important victory for Walker was the messaging one. By spending heavily to shift sentiments against the recall process, he created a political dynamic that favored him when the actual recall vote rolled around. And when his opponents failed to counter the anti-recall campaign, they ceded the essential framing of the race to the governor.

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