'Divide and Conquer' May be Good Politics, But it's a Lousy Way to Govern

The battle of the Wisconsin recall race is a battle over the independents. A new Public Policy Polling survey finds that recall target Gov. Scott Walker leads opponent Tom Barrett 49%-45%. With a margin for error of plus or minus 3.4% that's not so awfully bad for Barrett, but obviously not where he wants to be.

The partisan breakdown is strikingly mirror-like -- 85% of Democrats support Barrett, 88% of Republicans support Walker -- so it's in that narrow middle that the game will be won or lost.

On that count, Barrett leads with independents, 49%-42%. And he slaughters among self-described moderates, 59%-33%. I suppose it's a sign of how stark our political divisions are that the dominance among middle-of-the-roaders makes absolutely no difference at all.

But it does demonstrate just how partisan the support for Walker has become. In ideological terms, he leads only among conservatives and Republicans (mostly redundant, I know).

And it's numbers like those that explain stories like this, from The Capital Times:

Walker’s official calendars from his first 13 months in office chronicle these and scores more hours he spent building credentials with conservatives in Wisconsin and across the nation. A detailed analysis of the 4,400 entries in Walker’s calendar by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism paints a portrait of a public relations-minded governor who focuses his message on receptive, conservative audiences and who, as the effort to recall him has intensified, has spent a sharply decreasing amount of time on official state business.

Regarding the news media, Walker granted more time to the national, conservative-leaning Fox News cable channel than any other media outlet -- nearly two times as much as to the state’s largest newspaper, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which had endorsed him in 2010.

Walker's spokesperson Cullen Werwie says the governor "has multiple media availabilities every week where he is available to answer questions from any legitimate news organization who chooses to attend, liberal or conservative," but the fact that non-conservatives aren't actually barred from press conferences is setting the bar fornonpartisan availability awfully low. Walker is clearly chasing around conservative media, in order to speak only to conservative voters.

When I said that battle of the Wisconsin recall race is a battle over the independents, I deliberately chose the word "over" rather than "for." Walker isn't trying to win over the middle and his actions suggest he believes he may have lost it. When the battle over independents really gets under way, Democrats will try to get them to the polls and Republicans will try to get them to stay home. Walker's razor-thin lead among all Wisconsinites would be extremely uncomfortable. Take the indies and moderates out of the mix and you start to get a little more elbow room.

Which means Team Walker is going to get brutal. If that turns off the middle, so what? They're gone anyway. The trick is to get them to hate Barrett as much as they do Walker. If they start saying to themselves, "They're all a bunch of clowns -- screw it," Walker wins. Electoral math seems to be the only kind of math that Republicans actually get.

So strap in, because Walker's not going to run a dirty campaign (he's already doing that) -- he's going to run an absolutely filthy one. And, when the smoke clears, Wisconsin will be worse off for it no matter who wins. He's working to widen those divisions even further. Whoever the next governor is, they'll be governor of a hopeless mess of a state, divided by Walker's scorched-earth politics.

As the man said himself, "Divide and conquer."


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