I personally believe there is a simpler explanation. Voters like their local cops, firefighters, nurses and teachers. In many ways, they idealize these type of positions even if they don’t like the state of education or public safety, etc. Thus opponents of reform had a very easy and emotionally effective message: Senate Bill 5 is an attack on the “everyday heroes” who protect our communities. It doesn’t really matter if this was true or not. In a 30 second ad it is easy to say and makes an emotional connection. This is a huge advantage in a statewide ballot issue.
Combine this with the huge financial advantage the opponents had (unions could take dues from union members regardless of their political beliefs and spend it on this election) and you have an uphill battle for supporters (and of course there is a minority of voters – public sector and labor unions – who are simply voting their self-interest). All they had to do was blanket the state with pictures of police and firefighters opposed to the issue and the lasting impression is that the bill is an attack on the people we value the most in our communities.
We can debate the wisdom of keeping fire and saftey forces in the bill (and the larger strategy & process) later. But what I want to note tonight is that this is not an ideological victory in my mind.