MILWAUKEE ——There may be no more appropriate metaphor for the impact of Wisconsin's combustible recall election for governor than what happened to Democratic challenger Tom Barrett moments after he publicly conceded defeat to Republican incumbent Scott Walker.
Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor, delivered the news to supporters at a downtown hotel Tuesday night, stepped off the stage and was slapped in the face by a woman distraught by his loss.
The results were not a good omen for organized labor, the moving force behind the recall, and were only modestly better for Wisconsin Democrats, who recaptured control of the state Senate in a development that could prove short-lived and of little consequence.
But political and labor experts cautioned that Walker's convincing victory in an election that turned on his anti-union policies may say more about voter sentiment in Wisconsin than it does the nation as a whole.
"Public-sector unions are licking their wounds, but I'm not sure how that all connects to the national story," said Barry Burden, a political scientist at the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin. "We'll still be a swing state."
As has become a pattern in this contentious presidential election season, Republicans and Democrats moved swiftly to spin the narrative about Wisconsin.
To Mitt Romney, the all but certain Republican challenger to President Barack Obama, Walker's victory was nothing short of the leading edge of a groundswell that will "echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin," as well as proof that "citizens and taxpayers can fight back — and prevail — against the runaway government costs imposed by labor bosses."
But final exit poll results suggest the lesson to be learned from Wisconsin is a very old one: All politics is local — even with an influx of tens of millions of outside dollars from special interests favoring Walker and, to a lesser extent, from unions backing Barrett.
Even as Wisconsin voters sided with Walker at the polls, the survey showed that Obama would still be the choice of 51 percent of them in November compared with 44 percent for Romney. Among those who backed Walker's retention, 18 percent said they also wanted to retain Obama.
Moreover, Obama got higher marks than Romney for his ability to help the middle class and improve the economy.
The White House moved quickly to distance itself from the outcome of the governor's race, after getting some criticism from Barrett's supporters that Obama could have done much more to help.
"I certainly wouldn't read much into (Tuesday's) result beyond its effect on who's occupying the governor's seat in Wisconsin," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One, headed to a West Coast swing of Obama campaign events.
Citing the exit polling, Carney said, "Even among the electorate that voted in Wisconsin, voters substantially approved of the president's positions when it comes to who they felt had the best vision for protecting and securing the middle class."
Charles Lipson, a University of Chicago political scientist, said the impact of the Wisconsin vote may have less effect on presidential politics than at the state and local level, where public officials may be encouraged to take a more aggressive stance on collective bargaining with unions.
"The vast American public is pretty pragmatic, but (they) are seeing a train wreck" when it comes to pensions and other public employee benefits, he said.
But Joseph Slater, a labor law expert at the University of Toledo, said voters may be more resistant to the kind of change Lipson was referring to than Wisconsin suggests. Slater pointed to his own state of Ohio, where Republicans who control state government also pushed through tough curbs last year on public employee unions. In November, Ohio voters overturned the GOP changes and restored union rights in a statewide referendum.
The difference, as Slater explained it, is that Wisconsin law doesn't allow for narrow-issue referendums, forcing unions to go for the nuclear option and try to oust Walker instead. "You can dislike the union bill and still like Scott Walker for other reasons," Slater said.
Indeed, the exit polling showed narrow support for Walker's collective bargaining reforms but overwhelming opposition to the recall concept itself. Among those surveyed, 60 percent said recalls were appropriate only in cases where a public official had been accused of official misconduct, while an additional 10 percent said they were never appropriate.
To Burden, the recall results in Wisconsin are hardly proof of a permanent tack to the right in the state. Four years ago, Obama won Wisconsin by 14 points, yet in 2010 voters handed the reins of state government to Republicans.
"People call (Wisconsin) a purple state, but I think it's really schizophrenic," he said.
Ironically, Burden said, the political pitches of Obama and Walker to Wisconsin voters have a similar theme. "They both want to see the economy perform well," Burden said. "When unemployment is down here, Republicans say that's Walker's doing, and Democrats say that's a national trend."