The promise. It’s long been a staple of political campaigns and it’s easy to understand why. Candidates need to find a way to connect with voters, to cut through the messaging clutter, and nothing does the trick quite like a simple, direct “this is what I’m going to do” statement. The promise, after all, is about much more than words. It reflects a candidate’s vision and confidence. I mean, who wants to vote for someone who’s not-so-sure what the future holds? We want our candidates to be bold, decisive, and optimistic.
There’s just one danger. What if a candidate gets elected and fails to deliver on a promise or falls short of it? Is a broken promise fatal or do voters today see the promise as a different animal: more a statement of goals and aspirations rather than a contract with (as we say in television) no “outs”?
They’re questions worth asking, because in Wisconsin’s 2014 race for governor, a promise will almost certainly be front and center. It’s the one Governor Scott Walker made in February of 2010, when he said Wisconsin would create 250,000 new private sector jobs in his first term in office (fewer Wisconsinites are likely to remember Democratic candidate Tom Barrett’s goal of creating 180,000 new jobs). Then-candidate Walker based his pledge on numbers that had been achieved by former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson in his first four years, and he repeated it again and again to voters and media around the state. When Walker appeared on my “UpFront” television show in late February, I asked him, “Is this a campaign promise? Something you want to be held to?” Walker didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely,” he replied. “To me, 250,000 is a minimum. Just a base.”
The governor is now more than half-way through his first term. At the current pace, businesses in the state would create about half of the 250,000 jobs he promised in his first four years. Walker says he’s making progress and still working to achieve the 250,000 goal, but has acknowledged it won’t be easy.
So here’s the question. What would be the political fallout if the governor fell short of his goal? While he still has another 18 months in his term, Democrats are already hammering Walker on his jobs record, accusing him of backing away from his pledge. To be sure, the state’s job performance will play a major role in next year’s race, but will “the promise” be a make-or-break issue?
Recent history provides some interesting food for thought. In 1988, Republican presidential nominee George H.W. Bush brought down the house at the GOP national convention by promising, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” But by 1990, President Bush had been forced to raise taxes, and by 1992, his opponents in the fall election, Democrat Bill Clinton and Independent Ross Perot, were questioning Bush’s trustworthiness. While a slumping economy may have had more to do with his defeat, the “read my lips” promise dogged Bush throughout the fall campaign, hurting him with conservative and independent voters.
Breaking a political promise may have kept the Brewers in Milwaukee, but it cost former Republican state Senator George Petak his job. It was 1995, and Petak had promised his Racine County constituents that he would oppose any bill that included their county in the stadium tax district. But at the last minute, with the Miller Park funding legislation in jeopardy, Petak had a change of heart. He voted for the legislation. Voters were furious and their punishment was swift. Petak faced a recall election in June of 1996, and his Democratic opponent, state Representative Kimberly Plache, pummeled Petak with his promise. His political career was over. Petak would have the distinction of being the first Wisconsin legislator to be successfully recalled from office.
In contrast, what was perceived as a broken promise did not prove fatal in the 2012 presidential election. In January of 2009, Obama administration officials projected that because of the $825 billion dollar stimulus spending package, unemployment would not climb above 8 per cent. By October of 2009, unemployment stood at 10 per cent. It was still above 8 per cent as the 2012 election year began. Republicans claimed the President had broken his “promise.” While the report from his administration referred to “significant margins of error” in its projections and Obama didn’t specifically use the word “promise,” it was viewed as such by millions of voters. But Obama overcame the criticism to win re-election. He won easily in Wisconsin, by seven percentage points.
Which brings us to 2014 and how the Walker promise of 2010 might play with voters. First, Walker’s promise is somewhat different than the ones made by Bush and Petak. They pledged specifically not to do something, and then did it. For some voters, the flip-flop—no matter what the explanation—is unforgiveable. Combine that with a red-hot issue (tax hikes or Miller Park), and you have an enraged, engaged electorate. But would Walker’s failure to deliver on his 250,000 jobs pledge generate the same intense voter reaction? Or have most voters already made up their minds about the governor? Polling suggests Walker supporters are fiercely loyal to the candidate. The question is whether failure to hit his 250,000 target would sufficiently motivate enough dissatisfied Democrats and independents to impact an election.
Second, the broken promise as a campaign weapon is only as effective as its Democratic messenger. In the hands of Bill Clinton, George Bush’s “read my lips” promise was a gift from the political gods. It’s not clear who Walker’s Democratic challenger will be, but he or she will have to articulate not only a convincing critique of Walker’s promise, but an appealing economic roadmap for the future.
Finally, whether some Wisconsin voters are in the mood to overlook an un-kept promise will depend on what happens to the state’s jobs numbers in the next 12 months. If the pace of job growth improves, the 250,000 pledge may seem less important to voters. The governor is already beginning to use a “we’re on the right track, don’t turn back” theme in interviews and speeches. He makes no apologies for aiming high, and says that initial job growth was slowed by the recall turmoil. But if Wisconsin continues to trail its Midwestern neighbors in job creation, his explanation could ring hollow with voters. Ironically, the governor may have to hope that Wisconsin residents come to the same conclusion about him that they did about President Obama: that enough progress has been made on the jobs issue to warrant a second term in office.
There is a certain peril in the political promise. But for most candidates, it’s a risk worth taking. The promise Governor Walker made three-and-a-half years ago helped lead him to victory. And as any political strategist will tell you, you can’t govern unless you win.