As has been widely reported statewide, the Marquette Law School Poll released on Tuesday found the 2014 governor’s race shaping up to be close, which means an intensely fought campaign is all but a certainty. But it’s worth underscoring the degree to which the race, one year out from the election, is between Scott Walker and someone who’s not Scott Walker.
The poll found that the large majority of Wisconsin voters do not have an opinion yet on former Trek Bike executive Mary Burke, the only announced candidate for the Democratic nomination, or two state legislators who are considering running, Sen. Kathleen Vinehout and Democratic Assembly Leader Peter Barca. To be specific, 70% had no opinion on Burke, 79% on Vinehout, and 82% on Barca.
But they sure know who the Republican incumbent is. Only 4% had no opinion on Walker. And he remains a highly polarizing figure, with 50% saying they have a favorable opinion of him and 46% unfavorable. As Professor Charles Franklin said during the poll release event, a lot of governors would come nowhere near 96% name recognition in their home states.
Walker’s extraordinarily high profile translates into large numbers of people saying they would vote for Burke, Vinehout, or Barca in a race against Walker, even though they don’t know much about any of them except that they’d be the Democratic opponent. And high numbers saying they’d vote for Walker, no matter who the opponent is. To be specific, the poll found that, in head to head matches, it was Walker 47% and Burke 45%, Walker 47% and Vinehout 44%, and Walker 48% and Barca 42%. The differences are within the poll’s margin of error.
Why should it be any different? Walker’s winning campaigns in 2010 and 2012 (the recall election) and especially the tumultuous spring of 2011 in the state Capitol, with all the drama around the Act 10 sea change in Wisconsin’s approach to public employees, made him the defining figure in state politics.
With opinions about Walker so wide, intense, and steady – his favorable and unfavorable ratings in the Law School Poll have wavered little since the start of 2012 – defining the Democratic candidate will be a central strategic goal for both Democrats and Republicans. And the race for governor is ultimately likely to be a battle for the small number of voters who have some flexibility in their feelings about Walker, combined with an intense effort to build election turnout among those with set opinions but perhaps some uncertain enthusiasm for voting. (Franklin said during Tuesday’s session that the poll results showed some signs of less Republican enthusiasm at this point than in polls in the past – you can be certain insiders in both parties are paying attention to that.)
As for the announced and potential Democratic candidates, low familiarity isn’t really a problem at this point. I covered the 1998 Senate campaign between Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold and Republican challenger Mark Neumann. I recall asking the Neumann campaign people well into the spring of 1998 what to make of the fact that large numbers of voters still didn’t know who he was. I was assured that by election day, they would – and with a barrage of effective commercials, they were right. Neumann lost narrowly to Feingold, but it certainly wasn’t because too few people know who he was or where he stood on the political spectrum.
Or, more recently, consider the campaign of Ron Johnson for US Senate in 2010. A year ahead of that election, no one knew who he was or that he was going to run. It wasn’t until well into the election year that he emerged, won the Republican Party’s endorsement, and, with a multi-million dollar, largely self-financed campaign, easily defeated Feingold.
There’s plenty of time to work on establishing public images and knowledge of the Democratic candidate for governor. How successful Democratic and Republican strategists are in doing that will be important. That said, you can bet that a lot of people will be motivated on their ballots a year from now by the choice between Scott Walker and not-Scott-Walker.
The new Marquette Law School Poll asked a wide range of questions – see the piece on this blog by my colleague Mike Gousha for thoughts on one result that has gotten little public attention. The full results, including detailed tabulations breaking the results down by sub-groups, can be found by clicking here.
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