Guv Race: Primary Takeaways


After a lengthy primary season, Wisconsin Democratic Party voters chose Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers as their nominee for governor.  Evers now goes up against incumbent Scott Walker. Governor Walker has already been elected twice and survived a recall election, but a failed (some might say disastrous) presidential campaign, lack of enthusiasm for his FoxConn initiative and the fact that 2018 looks like a “Blue Wave” year makes a third term for Mr. Walker anything but certain. In fact polls show that 2018 should be the Democrats’ best chance to unseat him. For what it’s worth, here are my takeaways from the primary:

Tony Evers won over 40 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. Does he have what it takes to unseat Governor Scott Walker?

August Primaries Suck: Some Cold War Revival Democrats like Rachel Maddow are convinced that Vladimir Putin is on a quest to undermine representative democracy in the West. I’m not sure why Putin would exert that kind of effort, since we are doing a good enough job undermining it on our own. I mean, a primary election in the middle of August? Voter turnout is depressingly low any time of year, but in the heat of summer it’s hard to get anyone other than political junkies, AARP members and “voting is the ultimate civic responsibility” types very motivated about the election. The estimated turnout of 22 percent is actually considered “high,” but the Democratic primary that nominated Jim Doyle in 2002 actually had more votes cast than what we saw on August 14 (553,000 votes in 2002 vs. 537,000 on August 14). In 2002 the primary was in September, but was moved to August in 2012 (a cynic might argue that the change was designed to depress voter turnout, especially among youth voters.).

I think it’s time to move the primary back to September. Even better would be to move toward an Oregon-style automatic voter registration and mail voting. If the Wisconsin Democrats somehow find a way to take control of the legislature, I do hope they prioritize reform of our elections to promote higher turnout. (I won’t hold my breath waiting for the Dems to fight for a progressive agenda.).

We Need Ranked Choice Voting: I think Tony Evers is a decent guy who has the potential to be a successful governor in the mold of Minnesota’s Mark Dayton (i.e. not flashy, but competent; not inspiring, but compassionate). Still, he earned just over 40 percent of the votes cast, meaning that almost 60 percent of Democrats voted for someone else. Evers may still have won in a ranked choice voting system, but at least in that system we would have a much better sense of what those nearly 60 percent were saying. The result of THAT would be to keep those voters motivated to participate in the Fall.

Tony Evers might be Wisconsin’s answer to soon-to-be former Governor of Minnesota Mark Dayton. Not flashy, but widely perceived as a competent center-left politician.

Let’s Rethink Coverage Of Polls: I know it’s a cliche’, but it also happens to be true: THE ONLY POLL THE COUNTS IS THE ONE TAKEN ON ELECTION DAY. Unfortunately, establishment media nationally and in Wisconsin are obsessed with polling data, and so all we heard for 6 months was “Tony Evers is significantly ahead in the polls.” Such inane coverage does several negative things that undermine representative democracy. First, the poll data makes the victory of the leader sound inevitable. Second, the polling data results in stupid arguments like “the poll leader is the only one who can win.” Third and most distressing, the polling data deflates the morale of campaign volunteers (“we did all this work and we’re still down 30 points?”).

The only people who are helped by political polling data are big money special interests, who use the data to determine “viability” of candidates. Obsessive coverage of polling is also a key culprit in the production of Wisconsin’s lazy journalism that I’ve written about. As Harvard History Professor Jill Lepore put it in a piece for the New Yorker: “Turning the press into pollsters has made American political culture Trumpian: frantic, volatile, shortsighted, sales driven, and anti-democratic.”

Include Third Party Candidates In Debates: The Wisconsin Broadcasters Association has invited Walker and Evers to participate in ONE debate, in Madison on October 5th. The WBA’s absurd participation criteria, which require candidates to be polling at 10 percent and have at least $250,000 raised, guarantee that only  Walker and Evers can be on the stage. Of course, there is no way for a third party candidate (unless he or she is some kind of millionaire reality TV star) to be at 10 percent in the polls and raise that kind of money UNLESS they can participate in debates.

The Libertarians, the Wisconsin Greens, and the Constitution Party all have candidates on the November ballot. Given that the establishment parties are wildly unpopular, and almost 80 percent of voters stayed home on primary election day, I can see no rational basis for excluding ballot qualified candidates from the debate(s).

At the very least, Walker and Evers should debate multiple times. I would suggest one debate in each Congressional district to make sure that the needs of the entire state are addressed.

What’s the Future of Denimocracy? Last year I wrote a piece for the Independent outlining various scenarios in which Blue Jean Nation activist Mike McCabe could run for governor. I concluded at the time that the only real way for Mike to get the Democratic Party nomination would be for Blue Jean Nation activists to take over as many county parties as possible. The establishment Democratic Party seemed mostly hostile to McCabe–which was to be expected–and Blue Jeans activists had only moderate to minimal success at remaking the county parties. But I don’t think anyone, including McCabe himself, expected the transformation of the Party and the state’s political culture to happen in one election cycle.

The success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York along with other progressives nationally should give hope to Blue Jean Nation activists who want to see a rejuvenated Democratic Party.

I think Denimocracy has a bright future not only in our state, but nationally. The success of candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, James Thompson in Kansas, Ilhan Omar in Minnesota and many others who would enthusiastically endorse every part of the Blue Jean Creed is a hopeful sign moving forward.

Can Tony Evers Win? The short answer is yes. But it won’t be easy, and it will require more than the standard “we are the lesser evil” shtick that has become ritual for establishment Dems. So for Evers to win the Democrats really do need to stand behind a program that can unite rural and urban, young and elderly, and people of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds. You know, a kind of old fashioned New Deal Coalition reinvigorated for the 21st century.

Governor Walker’s elite supporters will go after Evers in ruthless ways that we cannot even imagine yet, and they will be aided and abetted in that quest by a lapdog media that tends to follow the principle of “print smear first, fact check later.” So don’t be surprised if by the end of October the grandfatherly looking and sounding Mr. Evers is transformed into some kind of monster who wants violent criminals out on the streets and is out to undermine all that is good and decent in our state.

Will the journalistic establishment in Wisconsin step up to the plate this time? Will they refuse to allow their print space, airwaves, and digital platforms to be used as vehicles for political hacks and hatchet (wo)men? Will they examine Mr. Walker’s record and Mr. Evers’ proposals as honestly, rigorously, and objectively as possible? Will they allow the dominant campaign narratives to be framed by REAL PEOPLE as opposed to self-serving political operatives? I’m betting that they will not step up to the plate, but I would be thrilled to be wrong on that.


About Author

Tony Palmeri

Tony Palmeri is a Professor of Communication Studies at UW Oshkosh. He teaches courses in rhetoric and public advocacy, freedom of speech, the rhetoric of rock and roll, and the communication career capstone. He maintains a blog called "Tony Palmeri's Media Rants." Tony served two terms on the Oshkosh Common Council and ran for state legislature in 1996 and 2004.

1 Comment

  1. Here’s a rational basis (mathematical proof) for VOLUNTARILY “excluding ballot qualified candidates from the ballots” AS THIRD PARTY CANDIDATES in the general election:

    The Mathematical Intelligencer 25(4):17-31 · December 2003
    DOI: 10.1007/BF02984858

    “Other than standard election disruptions involving shenanigans, strategic voting, and so forth, it is reasonable to expect that elections are free from difficulties. But this is far from being true; even sincere election outcomes admit all sorts of counterintuitive conclusions.” …

    Full text (free)

    The Koch bros learned their lesson when David Koch ran as a Libertarian and LOST, loud and clear. Next time, they decided to run “Tea Party” candidates as Republicans, and WON. Unfortunately, some people have not learned that lesson, and probably never will:

    “Greens for Trump?”
    by Peter Singer

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