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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 71.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Walker's millions will have little effect on Barrett in the recall election
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Twenty million bucks and it's essentially a dead heat.
Twenty million bucks and it's essentially a dead heat.

I was 100% wrong.

When I wrote about the governor's race last month I said that for the Democrats it came down to nominating the candidate best able to win a majority of undecided voters, which I guessed were about 8% of the electorate.

It turns out I was wrong by a factor of at least half. Recent polls suggest that no more than 4% of voters remain undecided.

On Tuesday the Democrats did nominate the candidate in the field with the best chance to pick up 2.1% and beat Gov. Scott Walker.

But it was a short, strange trip. The state's two largest public employee unions, WEAC and AFSCME, inexplicably decided to choose the nominee from the start in order to preclude a primary.

As it turned out, the primary itself was no problem at all. The candidates did not attack each other and, in fact, the exercise gave Tom Barrett a higher profile and a chance to test some arguments. It also kept Walker's attack machine at bay. Though he did figure out that Barrett would be the nominee and did run some attack ads against him, it's nothing compared to what might have happened if there had been a clear Democratic nominee from the start.

The primary was only a problem because WEAC and AFSCME spent so much of their members' money trying to prevent it and then trying to get their preferred candidate through. The unions spent at least $4 million, and one campaign finance expert I talked to said she estimated it could be over $7 million when all the accounting is done.

That's between $4 and $7 million that won't be there for the general election. It's gone. Vaporized without reason.

But here's the thing. Counter to what you would expect, I am not so sure money matters as much as it often does. Keep in mind that Walker spent $20 million before the primary, and polls show him trailing Barrett by a point. Twenty million bucks and it's essentially a dead heat.

Think about what a campaign spends money on. Introducing a candidate? Both Walker and Barrett are well known, having run against each other barely 18 months ago. Motivating supporters? Each side believes the fate of the universe is at stake here. Swinging undecideds? Well, yes, but with such a small group of uncommitted voters it's not clear that massive and expensive media buys are going to be either necessary or effective in winning them over.

Most people vote based on what they hear from their friends, relatives and neighbors. The candidates could almost sit on the doorsteps of this relative handful of undecided voters and chat with them as they fix dinner.

My friends at the television and radio stations are not going to be happy to hear this, but it seems to me that pouring millions into TV and radio buys will be a waste of resources.

Instead, the strategy could be to identify the undecided voters (not that hard) and find very specific, personal ways to persuade them. Almost none of them will vote based on the union-busting issue. If that were important to them one way or the other they would already have selected their candidate. That's why I thought WEAC and AFSCME's insistence on a pledge to veto any budget that didn't restore collective bargaining rights was such a bad idea and why Barrett was smart to resist it.

But beyond the union issue, some undecided voters will be persuaded to vote against Walker because he has the worst record on jobs of any new governor after promising to create a quarter-million of them.

Others may have actually supported his moves on collective bargaining but don't like the strong-arm tactics he used to get them through. Some might cringe at his attacks on environmental protections, while parents might fear his cuts to education will hurt their kids' chances in life. And still others won't like the fact that 74% of his donors are from outside Wisconsin.

In a razor-thin close race, Tom Barrett has the advantage of not having been governor for the last year and a half. I know something about this, having lost my last race in part because whatever things I had done to make voters unhappy, I had done very recently, and the memory was sharp.

All of which is to say that while I wish we had that $4 million back, I don't think money will decide this race, and that's good news for Tom Barrett.

Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave at

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