Walker’s victory was also very much a personal one. To Wisconsin Republicans, the governor is a hero. Now he may be one nationally as well. When he appeared at a GOP dinner with Romney and then-presidential candidate Rick Santorum a few days before the Wisconsin primaries in April, he was the most popular politician in the room by far. Wisconsin Republicans may admire Romney, but their enthusiasm for him doesn’t match their affection for Walker. He will need some of that Walker enthusiasm if he hopes to win the state in November.
There is one other important element to the Walker template for Republicans: conviction. The governor took a controversial position in going after labor unions as part of his effort to lower the state’s deficit. In the face of a huge backlash, he stood behind what he did. He acknowledged that he hadn’t thought enough about how to sell his program and paid a price for it that won’t be erased by Tuesday’s victory. But he did not back away from the changes he implemented.
That makes Walker the kind of conviction politician that many Republicans want their leaders to be — a model that some other GOP governors emulate. It is what many voters thought was missing in Romney during the primaries. Wisconsin Republicans were willing to go to almost any lengths to keep Walker in office. It’s questionable that they will do as much for Romney. His hope still rests on his ability to fuel and channel the anti-Obama anger in the party’s base as the chief motivator in November.
If Tuesday’s results buoyed Republican hopes for the presidential election, exit polls offered counter evidence that Obama may still hold advantages in Wisconsin as the campaign heats up. When voters who turned out Tuesday were asked whom they will support in the presidential election, Obama ran ahead of Romney, although his margin was short of the 14 points by which he won the state in 2008.
Overall, about 17 percent of Walker voters said they will back the president. Well over half described themselves as independents — disproportionately more than in the overall electorate on Tuesday — and more than half were moderates. Overall, independents made up a larger share of the electorate on Tuesday, and Walker won them, but by a somewhat smaller margin than in 2010.
A plurality of Wisconsin voters also judged Obama superior to Romney in his ability to help the middle class. The president held a narrow advantage on who would be better at improving the economy. A memo from the Obama campaign’s Wisconsin director that was issued overnight noted, “There hasn’t been a single poll that shows Romney ahead of the president in Wisconsin.”
Walker and Obama actually share something in common. The governor did not back down from the most controversial elements of his platform, but he sought to avoid throwing them in voters’ faces. Instead, his main message was similar to what the president has been using as he campaigns nationwide: We’ve made progress, things are a little better, don’t go back to where we were before I came into office.
Partisans on both sides described Tuesday’s recall vote as the second most important election in the country this year, behind the presidential race. It lived up to those expectations, and Walker exceeded expectations with his victory. It was not a referendum on the president. That election is coming soon enough.
For more columns by Dan Balz, go to postpolitics.com.