In more usual times, politicians view recalls as extraordinary. There is also a general sense of an electorate that moves from partisan one way to generally centrist independent to partisan the other way, although things may vary for specific issues. (Doc Smith has a description of this that stands the test of time in First Lensman, and Heinlien's description in Double Star is likewise still a good description of what had been the general case.)
We do not live in typical times.
What usually happens in situations like Wisconsin, where angry folks trigger a recall and win two of six seats, is that the party that retains control takes it as a warning shot. Yes, they won. But there is recognition that getting this many people this pissed is not a good strategy for reelection because, if you continue pissing off the center, you eventually lose. So the standard reaction is to take credit for maintaining the trust and mandate of The People while also making more conciliatory, centrist noises to reassure the non-partisan folks who stuck by you that they did not make a mistake.
Part of the rational is that losing ground is bad, even if it doesn't result in a total loss of control. It is tied into the idea that the American political system (and democracy generally) works best if it is not played as a winner take all game in which the party out of power (and its supporters) are effectively excluded from all aspects of government. By contrast, the "winner take all" approach ends up completely excluding the independent block, which is forced to pick sides to make itself heard. It also has nasty long term effects on legitimacy and social coherence, as I've written numerous times over the last several years. But we'll set that aside for now.
These days, we seem split between Republicans, who view total rejection by the electorate as a mere temporary set back (which they attribute to being too willing to compromise on principle) and Democrats, who will never feel sufficiently validated by any majority. As that plays out in WI, we can expect the WI R party to view yesterday's results as a total vindication rather than as a warning shot to alter behavior. After all, in winner take all politics, the only thing that matters is being the winner at the end of the day. The failure of the other side to win, no matter how close the decision, indicates a complete rejection of the other side and a complete embrace all your policies. (Although the reverse is never true, since such reversals are the result of stolen elections or because the party strayed from its true principles).
Wisconsin progressives seem to be regarding this as a positive showing in a longer fight (at least until 2012). Nate Silver, whom I generally trust, thinks that WI progressives should continue to plan on a recall of Walker in 2012, based on the D performance in this recall and current trends. I expect the national Democratic Party to take the WI results as further proof that they should reject the progressives because, after all, the progressives didn't totally win (and even if they had won, it would not have proven the validity of the progressives' approach).
Meanwhile, the majority of voters appear to grow increasingly frustrated. Not sure what that means for 2012. Frustrated people do unpredictable things. Sadly, Democrats need a Huey Long, to challenge Obama and drive him leftward. But the conventional wisdom is to avoid primary fights. I'm not convinced that this is true. I do not believe that Kennedy weakened Carter, for example. Carter had his own set of problems, and I think the theory that Reagan's "Are you better off now than you were 4 years ago" advertising campaign was much more damaging to Carter than Kennedy's primary challenge.
But we'll see. I am not calling anything in 2012 yet, despite the fact that calling 2012 has become the national obsession.
"Oh my God! You vaporized Isaac Asimov!"
From Paul Malamont's The Amazing, The Astounding, and the Unknown.