Thursday, June 7, 2012
The Media's "Interesting" Coverage of the Wisconsin Recall Election (Updated)
Some media have offered rather interesting coverage of the recent Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election. Every poll conducted ahead of the election showed that Governor Scott Walker would comfortably defeat his opponent Tommy Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee. But once the polls closed, the media immediately announced that the race was too close to call. This surprising news drew in many viewers who wanted to see how this unexpected drama would unfold. But there really was no drama at all.
Faulty Exit Poll Reporting
The media failed to disclose that it initially reported a virtual tie based on preliminary exit poll data that did not take into account results from all precincts. Furthermore, the firm that conducted the exit polls did not sample absentee voters, who favored Walker.
Later that night the media updated the information it provided the public and then very quickly called the race for Walker. This move left many folks confused. It also probably aroused the suspicions of individuals who distrust everything related to the media or to opinion polls.
The Manufactured Link Between Walker, Obama, and Romney
The next line of reporting turned to November. Although President Obama remained completely silent about this election (except for a last-minute tweet endorsing Barrett), many pundits argued that the outcome signaled that Mitt Romney has a chance to win this traditionally blue state. These pundits, however, overlook many factors.
First, the exit polls show that voters favored Obama over Romney 51-44%. Furthermore, 18% of persons who voted for Walker said they would vote for Obama.
In addition, the exit polls also reveal that many voters simply oppose recall elections. 60% of voters said that recall elections should only occur when the incumbent has engaged in "official misconduct." Walker overwhelmingly won this group.
Despite the effort by some commentators to portray Wisconsin as "in play" for Republicans, the results of the recall election are essentially the same as those in the last two rounds of state elections. The Democrat won groups like women and union members; the Republican won whites and conservatives. The National Journal has an excellent analysis of the election returns.
Finally, it is not odd for voters in a state to elect a governor of one party, but favor a presidential candidate from another party. Indeed, Walker won in 2010 despite Wisconsin voters favoring Obama over Senator John McCain. Similarly, Walker survived the recall election, despite voters indicating that they would support Obama in November. According to Nate Silver, in the last 10 presidential elections, candidates have actually performed better in states with governors who are members of the opposing political party.
Virtually Unreported: Democrats Gain Control of Wisconsin Senate
Finally, while the media has obsessed over Walker's victory, only few sources have reported that the Democrats regained control of the Wisconsin senate Tuesday night. The Washington Times, a very conservative newspaper, was among the first (and few) media to cover this story (L.A. Times also now covering it).
Although Walker survived the recall attempt, Democrat John Lehman defeated incumbent Republican Senator Van Wanggaard. The successful recall of Wanggard gives the Democrats a slim majority in the state senate. This was the third successful recall effort by Wisconsin Democrats over incumbent Republicans since 2010. Three Republicans, however, retained their seats on Tuesday.
Update: Professor Michael P. McDonald, a Government and Politics scholar at George Mason University, cogently explains why the recall election has no bearing on November.