The Power of the Petition: How the Effort to Recall Scott Walker Could Swing the 2012 Presidential Election

The new science of winning campaigns.
May 8 2012 11:39 AM

The Power of the Petition

How the effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker could swing the 2012 presidential election.

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As Wisconsin’s partisan factions have become ideologically hardened, Grebner is finding that signature data has become even more valuable. Now the hypothetical voter with a 50 percent chance of voting for a Democrat moves as high as 82 percent just by flagging her signature on a petition to recall a Republican, according to Grebner’s analysis. (The inverse is true, as well: Her odds of voting Democratic would fall to 18 percent if she had signed a petition to recall Democratic state senators.)

Both Democratic and Republican party officials have come to similar conclusions through private research. When Democrats submitted petitions to recall three Republican state senators who had backed Walker’s agenda, the RNC commissioned a poll of those who had signed them. Close to 90 percent of respondents identified as sympathetic to the Democratic cause. “Everyone who signed this thing knew what they were signing,” says Wiley.

As a result, according to Wiley, Republican Party operatives have removed all voters who signed petitions to recall Walker from their list of get-out-the-vote targets for Romney and a yet-undecided candidate in the state’s open Senate race. (Republicans will select their nominee to face Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin in an August primary.) Even those Wisconsinites who otherwise look like reliable Republican supporters—maybe they live in heavily Republican suburb, were identified as John McCain backers in 2008, or support conservative causes—are approached skeptically if they petitioned for Walker’s recall. Some will be targeted with mail or phone calls persuading them to vote Republican; others could end up ignored altogether. “We just don’t want to take any chances of turning out anyone who signed a petition,” says Wiley.

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Signature gathering has been a staple of political activity in western states with long-standing cultures of direct democracy. But the emergence of petition-driven politics on new terrain in the Midwest and around clearly partisan issues—like last year’s successful campaign to invalidate an anti-collective bargaining law in Ohio, for which union organizers submitted five times more signatures than were legally required—should refine the ability of campaigns in swing states to profile some of the electorate’s most elusive targets. “We have a list that adds up to 1.9 million signatures between all the races,” says Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Michael Tate. “These are people who are on the grid from a voter-contact perspective.” 

When campaigns set out to identify voters’ preferences, what canvassers call IDing, they try to reach people on their home phone line or at their doorstep, because that’s where they’re registered to vote. But most signature-gathering takes place out in public, in shopping centers, outside churches, and on street corners—in other words, exactly where an elusive voter may be when she’s not answering her door or picking up her home phone. “In some ways, the recall petition is more valuable, since it can be used to ID people who don’t vote in primaries and who are less tightly linked to politics,” says Grebner. “In other words, petitions can be used to identify exactly the kinds of people who deserve extra GOTV attention.”

Indeed, Grebner is finding that the act of signing a petition may itself make someone more likely to vote. Last year, his firm Practical Political Consulting participated in a campaign to recall Michigan state representative Paul Scott, a Republican allied with the state’s new governor Rick Snyder. Over the summer, organizers collected 11,047 valid signatures from voters in the Flint-area district. On election day in November, Scott became the first Michigan legislator to be recalled from office in nearly three decades. Grebner looked at whether the petition signers had turned out at a different rate than other voters. He found that just signing the petition had increased an individual’s likelihood of voting by 10 to 21 points.

When he had carried petitions himself, Grebner had seen his request for a signature open up a conversation with his targets, the type of meaningful exchange that often eluded canvassers who merely greeted voters with an election-day reminder or handed off a piece of literature. “By spending three minutes on a doorstep, I may convert somebody into a long-term supporter,” Grebner wrote in a blog post. Soliciting a signature was likely a better way of winning a vote than asking for it directly.

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