Early Polls = Early Special Elections

This does seem to be the day for challenging Big Dubious Theories published at Buzzfeed. If you missed it, I pitched a mild fit earlier over McKay Coppins’ channelling of the Romney campaign’s claim that its anti-Obama aggressiveness of late is some sort of inside straight that will placate “the base” and attract swing voters. Now let’s look at a John Ellis piece that expresses great confidence in projecting next Tuesday’s Wisconsin Recall vote into the national presidential results, and indeed, the future of American governance.

I won’t go into Ellis’ ruminations (based on one of Walter Russell Mead’s cranky, apocalyptic claims that the New Deal is kaput) that what he calls the Blue Social Model is directly at stake on Tuesday. Yes, Scott Walker is a nightmare who if left to his own devices would like to turn his state into a wintry, beer-soaked version of South Carolina. But I hardly think a Walker victory on June 5 means we might as well all learn to love the Ryan Budget.

But it’s Ellis’ specific projections from June 5 to November 6 that will get quoted a lot, for the simple reason that they are quotable:

The crude calculation is this: Walker defeat equals certain Obama win in November. Walker win by 1-5 percentage points equals very close presidential general election (nationally). A Walker win by 6 points or more equals Mitt Romney is the favorite to win in November.

That’s “crude” all right. Is a special election (always a dubious model) with extensive special rules, including the suspension of the state’s campaign spending limits, in one state really going to determine all our fates? Money alone makes this recall strange: Walker has spent close to $30 million on this race, and along with his out-of-state Super-PAC friends, he probably enjoys a 2-1, 3-1, or even greater financial advantage. The Barrett-Falk primary, held so recently, was a major distraction for the recall forces–particularly the unions who were less than enchanted with the Milwaukee mayor. And while partisan polarization (and in Wisconsin, high turnout) makes state and national campaigns more congruent than has often been the case, the recall fight is over a narrower set of issues than the presidential contest. And all those reasons for being cautious about the predictive value of Tuesday’s results are in addition to the lessons losers as well as winners might learn.

Early special elections are a lot like early polls: interesting, informative, but hardly dispositive. So anyone following the returns Tuesday night who thinks he or she infallibly knows what will happen five months from now could be in for a nasty surprise or three before we get to November.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.