Wisconsin's recall election dominated the political news last week. Democrats say their valiant soldiers were simply buried in an avalanche of big money and insist that they will prevent that from happening in November. Republicans say their valiant soldiers were the vanguard of a populist uprising against the excesses of big labor and proclaim that they will carry the state for Romney in November. Both explanations are too simplistic because the Wisconsin vote turned on a number of differing factors — every election does — but there is one lesson that can be drawn without indulging in spin.
Public-employee unions are in trouble with voters. As The Washington Post editorialized, "For public-employee unions the lesson could not be clearer. Their instinct to punish Mr. Walker, so as to deter imitators, was understandable, but it led them down a blind alley. Public concern about the cost of state and local governments is real, justified and spreading. Voters are not content with policy menus that include only service cuts and tax increases, without significant, permanent reductions in personnel costs that make up the lion's share of budgets."
This is true not just in Wisconsin. In California, San Diego and San Jose both adopted measures that were very similar to those in place in Wisconsin, by margins approaching two to one. These cities are far from Republican strongholds and voted the way they did without being subject to the "massive amounts" of campaign dollars that Democrats blamed for their defeat in Wisconsin.
In the face of such public concern, why did the unions try the recall? Partly because of money. The most significant Walker action against them — the one they were most anxious to reverse by means of the recall — has been cancellation of the practice of the state witholding union dues from employee paychecks. Now that they have the power to decide for themselves whether or not to pay dues, many union members have stopped doing so; union income has dropped off dramatically. Tens of millions of dollars that the unions used to have to spend in political campaigns, on an annual basis, are now gone.
If the exit polls are to be believed, an unusually high number of union members contributed to Governor Walker's victory. While voters from public-employee union households were overwhelmingly against him, voters from other union households weren't so much. It is probable that the same was true in California. (Exit polls were not taken there but Democrats outnumbered Republicans in both cities by a good margin.) Union solidarity isn't what it used to be.
Speaking of exit polls, it is clear that the sample drawn to create this batch was flawed. Citing those polls, CNN repeatedly said the race was tied at 50-50 while actual vote totals crawling across the bottom of the screen were showing Walker winning handily. He ended up close to 54 percent, which means that the exit poll sample tilted to the Democrats by four percentage points. If you take those four points away from the polls' report that President Obama was at 53 percent, it puts him below 50 percent and says Wisconsin is in play.
All of this is important because public-employee unions are now much larger than industrial unions and have replaced them as the primary voice of labor. Speaking directly to all public-employee unions, The Washington Post editorial concluded , "They (should) engage governments in a good-faith effort to restructure and preserve public services for the long term. States and localities face genuine financial problems, and the unions share responsibility for them."
That's the message sent from both California and Wisconsin last Tuesday.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.