With the release last week of the Marquette University Law School poll that had Scott Walker leading Tom Barrett by a 50-44 margin, Walker’s most naive enthusiasts expressed delight while Barrett’s supporters panicked.
Both were wrong.
In the latest Marquette Poll, almost half of the 600 likely voters surveyed identified as conservatives, while 30 percent identified as moderates and 20 percent identified as liberals.
But the pattern of exit polls conducted in major elections over the past decade suggests that the accurate breakdown is far different. One of Wisconsin’s savviest number crunchers, Jud Lounsbury, notes that “if we average the last three exit polls in Wisconsin (2006, 2008 and 2010), we find that the actual breakdown of the Wisconsin electorate is 22.7 percent liberal, 46.7 percent moderate, and 31 percent conservative.”
But there’s an even more significant divergence in the new Marquette poll.
The previous Marquette poll, which showed a dead heat between Walker and Barrett, found that 43 percent of those identified as conservatives, while 32 percent identified as moderates and 22 percent as liberals.
In other words, the new poll upped the number of conservatives interviewed — those most likely to support Walker — by five percentage points while it reduced the percentage of liberals polled — those most likely to vote for Barrett — by two points.
When we figure in the slight shift among moderates toward Barrett in the newer poll, the divergence in sample groups (upping the conservative percentage while reducing the liberal percentage) accounts for the entire boost in Walker’s number and the entire drop in Barrett’s number.
In other words, there is good reason to conclude that the race remains a dead heat — despite the fact that, in the period immediately prior to the latest round of Marquette polling, Walker outspent Barrett by roughly 25-1.
Republican and Democratic pollsters acknowledge that the governor has a “ceiling” on his approval ratings and his percentages in head-to-head races. He can’t get above 50 percent.
That fact excites Democrats, and it scares Republicans — which explains why the governor and his supporters continue to run scared, even going to the extreme position of peddling “revised” job numbers to counter bad news from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But Republicans are right to note that Walker rarely falls more than three points below that 50 percent level.
The polls confirm that Wisconsin remains closely divided with regard to its governor and the question of whether to recall and remove him.
But anyone who has seen a yard with a “United Wisconsin to Recall Walker” sign next to a yard with an “I Stand With Governor Walker” sign knew that.
So what do the latest polls tell us that is important about the next two weeks?
Democrats wrong to downplay collective bargaining issues
When Walker launched his assault on labor rights, hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites protested in communities across the state. The intense moment created a classic “Which Side Are You On?” demand on citizens. Walker had, according to exit polls from the previous November, won 37 percent of the vote from members of union households. After things blew up at the Capitol, polls showed support for the governor from union households fell to 20 percent.
Fourteen months later, with the recall approaching, a new Public Policy Polling survey has Walker with a 39 percent approval rating from union households. Even if that figure is somewhat inflated by over-polling of conservatives, it is reasonable to suggest that the governor has won back many private-sector union members. I asked friends whose workplaces are represented by the Teamsters and Sheet Metal Workers and they agreed that 25 percent to 30 percent of their fellow workers lean toward Walker.
That’s remarkable for a governor who not only attacked public-sector unions but who entered the Legislature as an advocate of “right-to-work” laws, which undermine the ability of private-sector unions to organize and negotiate effectively — and who was recently seen in a video discussing with a billionaire donor strategies for undermining private-sector unions.
Soft messaging by Democrats on labor issues has done them serious harm with voters in their potential base. And a failure to educate the broad mass of voters on the importance of collective bargaining to protecting middle-class wages and benefits has been equally damaging.
Republicans do not make this sort of mistake. Walker’s done massive outreach to cultural and social conservatives, and he did not hesitate, even as the recall approached, to sign controversial bills that are high on right-wing priority lists. Walker knows that a recall election in a closely divided state is about maximizing appeal to the base, not softening messages and avoiding issues.
Gender gap politics are complicated
Polling in recent weeks has shown that the governor has a big advantage among male voters: 52-44.
But it was much closer among women. While 51 percent of women say they disapprove of the governor, 47 percent say they approve.
The high level of support the governor gets among men accounts for whatever advantage he has in all recent polls. Why’s he doing so well? Walker’s run a “guy” strategy, with high-profile appearances at events like the National Rifle Association convention in St. Louis. He had no qualms about signing legislation that weakens pay equity protections for women — a play to male workers who think they are somehow harmed by fair treatment of women in the workplace. The governor and his campaign aides know what they’re doing.
Now that significant advertising has gone up criticizing the governor’s moves on pay equity and other issues, the gender-divide politics might begin to shift against him. But the “war on women” message needs to be developed and extended in sophisticated ways. In addition to outreach to women, the Barrett camp and its supporters should be thinking about smart ways to reduce the governor’s advantage among men.
Young voters are key for Barrett
Among voters under age 30, Barrett is favored over Walker by dramatic margins — 25 points in the PPP poll. Yet young voters are the least likely to cast ballots, especially in a recall election that will take place when campuses are on break.
It’s difficult to mobilize young voters and get them to the polls; that’s why campaigns appeal to older voters, who more consistently show up at the polls. But the overwhelming opposition to Walker among the rising generation of Wisconsinites should have Democrats thinking about how to appeal to them — both in media and with direct-mobilization strategies.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. email@example.com