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In the wake of the failed effort to unseat Gov. Scott Walker at mid-term, top Wisconsin Democrats insisted the June 5, 2012, election results were not an endorsement of the Republican governor’s political agenda.
At the party’s convention, Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, put it this way:
"The GOP is engaging in pure folly if they misread this election to think that the electorate of Wisconsin is fully behind this Walker agenda," Barca said. "Because 70 percent of the people who voted just didn’t feel comfortable with the recall of the governor."
He added: "After all, Wisconsinites are sort of forgiving people and fair minded people. And I guess they felt when Gov. Walker said, if they gave him another chance he’d do things differently, that he’d build a consensus and work for bipartisanship."
Before the recall rancor recedes into history, let’s look at how voters viewed the recall and what it says about support for Walker’s policies.
To recall or not to recall
Wisconsinites’ qualms about recalls were evident early on.
In a January 2012 poll Marquette University Law School, more than 40 percent said recalls should only be allowed in cases of criminal wrongdoing by an officeholder. By June, after the recall, another MU poll found 50 percent support for that.
On election day, widely cited exit poll results by Edison Research addressed head-on the question of the legitimacy of the recall. The firm asked 1,224 voters statewide when recalls are appropriate.
--10 percent said recalls never should happen.
--60 percent said recalls should only occur for official misconduct.
--27 percent said they should happen "for any reason."
Those results show a large majority who felt the recall was inappropriate to the circumstances, at least if you read "official misconduct" as some kind of civil or criminal charges by the person being recalled
Barca added the first two results and got the 70 percent figure he cited in his remarks, Eric Greenfield, a Barca legislative office spokesman, told us.
So, the numbers add up. But is it a fair reading of the exit polls that 70 percent "didn’t feel comfortable" with the recall?
Charles Franklin, a political scientist who directs the Marquette poll, told us Barca’s comment stands up based on the exit polls.
Since Walker has not been charged with official misconduct, it’s reasonable to lump the 60 percent in with the 10 percent "never" group as people who were not comfortable with the circumstances under which this recall was held, Franklin said.
David Wegge, executive director of the Strategic Research Institute at St. Norbert College, agreed. "Not comfortable" may actually understate the intensity of the anti-recall feeling, Wegge said. The institute polls regularly on politics and other state issues.
The Walker agenda
But there’s another aspect to Barca’s remarks.
He cited the 70 percent to bolster the notion that support for Walker’s agenda is softer than it may appear from the 53 percent majority Walker rang up compared to 46 percent for Barrett.
Franklin and Wegge both said it’s really hard -- if not impossible -- to prove that from the available exit polling data.
Indeed, it’s clear from the exit polls both Walker and Barrett got a large number of votes from people who seemed to think the recall was inappropriate. Nearly 95 percent of Walker supporters said recalls should never occur or only be for official misconduct. For Barrett, 42 percent of his backers felt that way.
But that doesn’t tell us how many of the recall skeptics disagreed with Walker’s policies but voted for him anyway to somehow make a statement that the recall itself was inappropriate.
There is one hint in the exits -- from a question on whether voters approved of Walker’s limits on collective bargaining by public employees.
Ten percent of those who disagreed with Walker on that issue nevertheless voted for Walker. And there was an equal, opposite effect: 10 percent of those who approved of the union limits nonetheless voted for Barrett. (Overall on that question, the result closely mirrored the election: 52 percent approved and 47 percent disapproved.)
Barca asserted that "70 percent of the people who voted just didn’t feel comfortable with the recall of the governor" weakening the notion Wisconsin is "fully behind" Walker’s policy agenda.
Barca reasonable constructs the figure from a widely cited exit poll. Given the negative attitudes toward the recall election, he’s on safe ground.
But there’s not enough information to judge the piece of Barca’s statement about the meaning of the anti-recall sentiments. And the exit poll question that comes closest provides murky results at best.
We rate his claim Half True.
WisPolitics.com, audio of Peter Barca speech, Democratic Party convention, June 8, 2012
Edison Research, exit poll results, 1, 2 and 3, June 5, 2012
Phone interview, Erik Greenfield, spokesman, Rep. Peter Barca, June 11, 2012
Email interview, David G. Wegge, Executive Director, Strategic Research Institute, St. Norbert College, June 12, 2012
Email interview, Charles Franklin, director, Marquette University Law School poll, June 11, 2012
Email interview, Randy Brown, Edison Research, June 12, 2012
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