Election Watch: Romney’s Referendum and Obama’s Future

June 5 represented the rare moment when a down-ballot contest almost completely eclipsed the presidential race, with the Wisconsin recall election blotting out the sun for several days. As you know by now, Scott Walker survived the recall effort by a solid 53-46 margin. Democrats did manage to recall a Republican state senator, and achieve control of the chamber—though that accomplishment was mainly symbolic, since the legislature is out of session until after the November elections.

The vast spin-a-thon over the results has focused on three main issues: money, meaning, and national implications.

There is no doubt that Walker and his allies—especially out-of-state super PACs—had a large financial advantage in the recall battle. But due to all sorts of different definitions of when the recall fight began, and hazy disclosure requirements, it’s not clear whether Walker’s advantage was 2-1, or 3-1, or 4-1, or even 7-1. It is reasonably clear that Walker succeeded in making the election turn on doubts about the appropriate use of recalls, which helped him win, but also undercut the idea that he now enjoys a mandate for his anti-public-sector-union initiatives or his budget priorities. And in terms of the presidential implications, the same Marquette Law School poll that nailed the recall results also showed Obama leading Romney in Wisconsin by a robust margin. Walker himself has thrown cold water on the idea that there is some sort of Rust Belt anti-union wave that makes Romney the favorite in Wisconsin and in similar states.

Also on June 5, about 30 percent of California’s eligible voters turned out for the first statewide exercise of the “top-two” primary, the initiative-approved system whereby the top two finishers in a non-partisan primary proceed to the November general election. It was also the first test of new congressional and state legislative districts drawn by a nonpartisan, “citizens” redistricting system. As the Calitics blog assessed it, intraparty rivals will go to the general election in four congressional districts and twelve State Assembly districts; otherwise, the primary was really just a trial heat for November, with the low turnout probably boosting the relative performance of Republican candidates. Tobacco companies and anti-tax groups spent $47 million fighting California’s Proposition 29 imposing new cigarette taxes to fund anti-cancer programs. A very slow count of absentee, mail and provisional ballots is keeping the results in suspense, but Prop 29 is currently losing by 42,000 votes with an estimated 436,000 votes still out.

The June 12 primaries were less dramatic by far. Maine Democrats nominated an outspoken progressive and Maine Republicans more of an establishment candidate to succeed Sen. Olympia Snowe, but everyone understands independent candidate Angus King (who will almost certainly caucus with Democrats) is the overwhelming favorite to win in November. North Dakota voters decisively defeated right-wing ballot initiatives aimed at abolishing property taxes and creating a “religious freedom” zone that would have arguably given clergy immunity from child abuse suits. Democrats hung onto Gabby Giffords’ Arizona House seat. South Carolinians were denied a choice in countless primaries thanks to a state Supreme Court decision striking more than 200 challengers from eligibility for failure to properly file financial disclosure reports.

At the presidential level, nothing much changed objectively over the last two weeks; polls remained relatively close, reflecting Mitt Romney’s small but significant intraparty gains after nailing down the GOP nomination.

But the underwhelming May Jobs Report, released on June 1, created a ripple effect, undermining the early upbeat Obama re-election message, and turning every admission by any Democrat that things weren’t peachy-keen into a GOP talking point. An Obama remark that the “private sector is doing fine,” focused closely on job data showing private-sector job growth battling public-sector austerity, became a big “gaffe.” In a speech just yesterday, Obama appeared to pivot from a message defending the recent performance of the economy on his watch to a more past-and-forward-focused “two futures” message assaulting Romney’s embrace of Bush administration economic policies. It is increasingly clear the presidential candidates will fight out the general election on those terms: Romney will try to divert attention from his own economic and non-economic agendas by calling for a “referendum” on Obama’s performance, while the incumbent will constantly call for comparisons. The more Romney tries to narrow the terms of debate, the more Obama will try to expand it. It could get monotonous by November, but the stakes are pretty dramatic.

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