As I write this, Republican Scott Walker is flirting with a 60-40% landslide victory over Democrat Tom Barrett in the Wisconsin recall election. The GOP state senators up for recall are also all leading by 20%+ margins. While the counting is early yet and those margins may come down (even though the races have been called), the county-level results are showing Walker almost uniformly outperforming his 2010 showing, which was of course a very Republican year. What accounts for this overwhelming victory, which seems to defy much of the polling (although one late poll had Walker up 12) as well as the CNN exit polling?
We can discard one possible explanation right away: low turnout. In fact, the election had very high turnout, about 60% of the eligible electorate, which is normally thought of as favoring Democrats. It is possible that Republicans were more motivated than Democrats and turned out in particularly high numbers, and indeed Walker was more likely to outperform his 2010 performance in counties that were Republican to begin with. So differential turnout remains a strong possibility, but merely invites a further question: Why did pro-Walker voters turn out in greater force?
Another possibility is that Walker is quite popular and that the median voter strongly favors his collective bargaining reforms. This is likely part of the explanation, as polls show majority approval of Walker’s job performance and his collective bargaining reforms, but he still seems to be outperforming even these polls in the recall election.
The third piece of the puzzle may be that some people who oppose Walker and his reforms actually voted for him because they did not believe in using the recall process. The exit polls, flawed as they apparently were, show a strong majority in favor of the view that recall elections should be used only in cases of official misconduct. However, I remain skeptical that very many voters would actually cast a vote in favor of a candidate to which they were opposed. Ideology almost always trumps process concerns for voters. What may have happened is that the process concerns kept moderate Walker opponents home disproportionately, thus contributing to the GOP turnout advantage.
UPDATE: Despite the apparent county-level improvements over 2010 for Walker in the early counting and huge leads for the Republican senators, the final count ended up much closer than the early results. In fact, one of the Republican senators was defeated. The early precincts to report must have been overwhelmingly Republican across the state. The closer final count makes me think that the “process” issues were a lot less relevant to voters than the media spin would have it.