In mid-January, Wisconsin Democrats unloaded 128 cardboard boxes from the back of a moving truck outside the Government Accountability Board, which is just around the corner from the state capitol that served as a stage for last summer’s epic legislative fight over union bargaining rights. Democrats were optimistic about the boxes’ contents, reams of petitions to set in motion the process that will subject the state’s governor, Scott Walker, to a recall vote. When, two months later, the board formally accepted the petitions, they confirmed that the truck’s arrival had consummated a staggering feat of political organizing: 900,039 valid signatures collected by 35,000 unpaid volunteers over two months. That was well over one and a half times the number required to trigger a statewide recall ballot, and nearly matched the number of votes the Democratic nominee for governor received in 2010. Walker won that election with only 1.2 million votes cast in his favor.
That math may herald the premature end of Walker’s term when he has to defend his office next month. (Democrats will select their nominee in a primary today.) But there’s a consolation for Republicans: They’re thrilled to get their hands on the petition documents, and the 900,039 names they believe will help them make sense of the state’s political geography on behalf of Mitt Romney this fall. Indeed, the boom in large-scale signature-gathering efforts—most visible in 16 different recall campaigns filed in Wisconsin over the past year, and similar efforts elsewhere in the Midwest—has fixed attention on a largely unmined source of political data that can help clarify fault lines in a difficult to gauge electorate. “They’ve just handed us the names of 900,000 people who are known, or are likely to be, anti-conservative voters. It’s a huge favor they’ve done.” says Rick Wiley, the political director of the Republican National Committee, which has 22 offices open in Wisconsin coordinating anti-recall efforts. “Without it you were stuck with somehow IDing these voters.”
Usually such information comes at great cost, and especially so in Wisconsin. Voters do not register with a party and can participate in either primary, although unlike in many states with similar laws, no record is kept of which ballot they choose. The only way to confidently sort individual voters by partisan attitudes is to contact them individually and ask. Wisconsin Republicans worked out early deals with conservative allies who would identify voters’ positions on key issues, like abortion, guns, and taxes, and add the information to voter lists. But many of the groups were restricted by the tax code from asking about partisan campaigns, and a sequence of uncompetitive statewide elections in the middle of the last decade meant few Republican organizations had the resources to do the work on their own.