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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 65.0° F  Overcast
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A tale of two recalls
There are few lessons for Wisconsin in California's 2003 experience
Maslin: The recall in Wisconsin is more intense.
Maslin: The recall in Wisconsin is more intense.
Credit:Carolyn Fath

Among those working on either side of the recall effort against Gov. Scott Walker, Democratic pollster Paul Maslin has a unique vantage point: He's been through one of these before.

Maslin, now based in Madison, worked for former California Gov. Gray Davis, who in 2003 became just the second United States governor to be recalled from office. Lynn Frazier, governor of North Dakota, was recalled in 1921.

Maslin is currently working for former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, who is challenging Walker, though he polled for her Democratic primary opponent, Tom Barrett, when the Milwaukee mayor ran against Walker in 2010. He has worked in the field for decades, including as a pollster and strategist for Howard Dean in his 2003 bid for president.

"I'm the only person who can stand up and say, 'Yep, I've done this twice,' says Maslin. "I hope my record is one and one when it's all over, that's all I can say."

Maslin says the more time goes on, the more the differences between the two recall efforts pile up; but first, some history.

Davis first won elective office in 1983, serving four years as a state assemblyman representing parts of Los Angeles County. He was elected state comptroller in 1986.

In 1992 he ran against former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein in the Democratic primary for a special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Pete Wilson, who was elected governor of California in 1990. Maslin says Davis' campaign ran "the worst ad in the history of politics," comparing Feinstein to hotel magnate Leona Helmsley, who at the time was in prison for tax evasion. Davis lost the election.

After this defeat, Davis assembled a new team including Maslin and David Axelrod, who went on to help get Barack Obama elected president and is now working on his reelection campaign.

Davis ran for governor after serving as lieutenant governor under Wilson. People didn't think he had a chance, says Maslin, but he pulled off a "stunning primary victory" against two millionaires, mainly by default. "People didn't feel strongly about [Davis], but they didn't like the other candidates," says Maslin. Davis won the general election and took office in 1999.

In his first year in office the state had a multibillion-dollar budget surplus, and the economy was going strong. Maslin says Davis wanted to create a rainy-day fund, but the Legislature had other ideas. An energy crisis resulted in blackouts, and the dot-com bust was not far behind. Revenues fell, and soon the state's budget surplus turned into a budget deficit.

Davis' reelection campaign was difficult, but he prevailed, raising tens of millions of dollars and spending more than half of it on negative ads.

Maslin says Davis started his second term with tepid support. "We won, but unimpressively by five or six points."

Unlike Walker - who has raised $25 million since taking office in January 2011 - Davis told his staff he was finished raising money. "He shut down his political operation," says Maslin. "To his credit, he said, 'I just want to govern for four years; I am not going to run again.' For a critical three to four months we took our eyes off the ball. The next thing you know, a guy surfaces and says we're going to start a recall."

Republican operatives soon got involved in the recall effort, and U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from San Diego, provided needed ammunition by donating his own money to the cause, eventually giving about $1.7 million.

Organizers got more than the 897,158 signatures needed to trigger a recall election. That's equal to 12% of the votes cast in the previous governor's election - a much lower bar than the 25% that is needed in Wisconsin.

"If [recall organizers in California] had had to get 25%, they never would have done it," says Maslin.

The recall election is also a very different animal in California. There is no primary, only one election. And Davis could also not run as a candidate for governor. On one day, on one ballot, voters were asked whether or not they wanted Davis to stay in office and who they would like to see replace him. Voters could vote on one or both questions.

"Walker at least will have his name on the ballot," says Maslin. "Gray couldn't say it's me or Arnold. It was two separate votes."

Arnold, of course, is bodybuilder/movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who became the dominant figure in the California recall as soon as he entered the race. On Oct. 7, 2003, 55.4% voted to recall Davis, with 44.6% opposed. Schwarzenegger became governor.

Maslin says particulars drove Davis' recall: a car tax the governor reinstated to help plug the budget gap; lingering discontent over blackouts; accusations of donor quid pro quos. "It all combined to create a situation where his popularity was plummeting."

A very different situation developed in Wisconsin, says Maslin, sparked by Gov. Walker's plan to curtail collective bargaining rights for most public workers.

"This was a sudden, swift action one month after this guy took office that shocked people into a counter-reaction," says Maslin. "This new governor didn't tell us what he was going to do and boom, the whole state blew up. You didn't have 60,000 coming to Sacramento," says Maslin, referencing the protests that engulfed the state Capitol following Walker's announcement.

Maslin says the recall effort in Wisconsin developed more organically and played out with "more real passion and real volunteer effort."

"It was way beyond California in terms of intensity."

That intensity, however, works both ways, says Maslin, noting it has also allowed Walker to solidify his base.

But Maslin says he and other Dems are betting that Walker's base is not 50% of the electorate, though it's clearly at least 45%.

Walker campaign spokeswoman Ciara Matthews did not respond to a request for response to Maslin's analysis.

Maslin says he's also counting on the "latent Democratic vote" in the state to swing victory to the eventual Democratic nominee on June 5. He argues that on the general issues of the day, more people in Wisconsin would vote for a Democrat than a Republican.

"For the last many years there has been a Democratic advantage in this state, three to four points on the low side," he says. The exception was the Republican landslide of 2010. "I think a lot of our voters didn't bother to show up in 2010. I think they will be coming back in June and November."

Maslin says there are some 250,000 people who signed petitions to recall Walker who have not voted before. "That is a powerful potential force in an electorate. You won't get them all to vote. But even if you get half, that alone wipes out Walker's advantage in 2010." Barrett lost by 124,638 votes.

With these potentially key votes in mind, Maslin says the public polling being done on the governor's race makes the mistake of using a voter list. "You're basing your sample on past behavior," he says. "By definition, 2010 was an election that tilts toward Walker."

Maslin does not underestimate the size of the GOP base in Wisconsin or the party's ability to reach voters.

"I'm not saying they won't turn out their voters. They will. I'm just saying we have more. It may come down to 2, 3, 4% more, but that may be enough to decide this election."

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