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The Globe and Mail

Wisconsin recall result spells trouble for Obama’s re-election bid

U.S. President Barack Obama waits to speak during the National Peace Officers Memorial Service in Washington on May 15, 2012.

Larry Downing/Reuters

What does Wisconsin mean for the fall presidential race?

The American political class will spend countless hours pouring over the exit polls, turnout data and each political party's "ground game" to draw conclusions from Republican Governor Scott Walker's decisive victory in Tuesday's recall election.

But former GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin did not need to do any research to come up with her own ideas about the Wisconsin vote's significance and President Barack Obama's failure to campaign to help elect Mr. Walker's Democratic rival.

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"I think that the Democrats there understand that the president's no-show represents the fact that Obama's goose is cooked," Ms. Palin told Fox News as the results were pouring in on Tuesday night. "More and more Americans realize that what Wisconsin has just manifested via this vote, embracing austerity and fiscal responsibility, is the complete opposite of what President Obama and the White House represents today."

Exit polls painted a different portrait of the Wisconsin political landscape, as 18 per cent of Mr. Walker's supporters said they planned to vote for Mr. Obama in November. But the surveys also showed a dramatic drop in Mr. Obama's support from 2008.

Most pundits agreed that a state that has voted reliably Democratic in every presidential contest since 1988 is now in play, complicating the Obama campaign's strategy for capturing the 270 electoral college votes needed to hold on to the White House.

What's more, if Wisconsin, with its 10 electoral votes, is no longer a lock for Mr. Obama, it suggests that much of the industrial Midwest is up for grabs in the November race. Indeed, Wisconsin exposed an "intensity gap" between Republican and Democratic forces that could benefit projected GOP nominee Mitt Romney in the fall.

"Less than four years after Obama won Wisconsin, Democrats lost in an election of their own making. That's because the GOP excelled at our ground game, now giving us a significant advantage for the presidential race," Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus wrote in a memo sent to GOP operatives.

Mr. Walker, with the Republican-controlled state legislature, delivered a body blow to organized labour by gutting the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions. He also sapped their ability to raise money, by making union dues optional.

That has broad implications for the ability of organized labour to pour money into Mr. Obama's re-election campaign, especially after spending heavily on the recall fight.

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The Wisconsin vote was a testing ground for the influence of deep-pocketed outside groups backing Mr. Walker. Campaign spending on the governor's behalf outpaced the amount spent in favour of his Democratic rival by a factor of three.

Even more money from pro-GOP outside groups will pour into the presidential race, neutralizing Mr. Obama's expected financial advantage over Mr. Romney.

Another worrying sign for the White House is the fact that Wisconsin voters earning between $50,000 and $100,000 – the largest block of the electorate – lined up decisively behind Mr. Walker. He got the support of 56 per cent among them.

The same proportion of voters without college degrees backed Mr. Walker. Together, those numbers suggest that working-class voters are not responding to Mr. Obama's campaign messages attacking Republicans for favouring the rich.

"The truth is that the core of the Democratic Party is no longer the white working-class," Marquette University John McAdams offered. "If I wanted to be a little snitty about it, I'd say it is the Prius-driving, latte-sipping types. That's a problem for Democrats."

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