On one level, the results released Wednesday of a fresh round of the Marquette Law School Poll did not contain much new. As Charles Franklin, professor of law and public and policy and director of the poll, said frequently during the “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” event at which results were presented, there was not much that was statistically different from the poll two months ago. The big headline – and it did, indeed, make big headlines – was that Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic challenger Mary Burke are essentially tied. That was the central result of the May poll as well.
I would suggest two important points that the little-changed results suggest:
One: The May results caught many people by surprise. There seemed to be a perception that, while the race was close, Walker was leading. The Law School Poll is the most closely watched and respected measure of public opinion in Wisconsin, and for the results to show a tie changed the perception of the race. But, as Franklin said on Wednesday, there were suggestions that the results might be a one-time matter, an “outlier.” To have almost identical results two months later should put to rest that notion. The only reasonable conclusion is that this really is a race that is tied at this point. The intense level of campaigning, more than three months before the November election, shows that the candidates themselves are operating on the understanding that this is an intense, highly competitive election that either could win.
Two: Mary Burke remains an uncertain figure to a large number of people. Almost everybody in Wisconsin has an opinion of Walker. The opinions differ strongly and split almost evenly, but only 8% of registered voters who were polled in the last several days did not say whether they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Walker. Generally in line with results over the past two years, 45% said they had a favorable view and 47% an unfavorable view.
But Burke has never run for state office before and was not widely known before this campaign. The first time the Marquette Law School Poll asked people for their views of her in October 2013, 70% did not give an opinion. Many people appeared to know only that she was a Democrat running against Walker. That 70% figure has gone down slowly. In May, 51% still said they hadn’t heard enough about her or did not have a view of her that was favorable or unfavorable.
Franklin said Wednesday that he expected the 51% figure would have gone down a few points or so by now. For one thing, the visibility of the governor’s race has been high, both in the news media and in advertising that is already underway. Instead, 49% did not give an opinion on Burke. That’s only a decline of two points in two months.
As Washington Post political writer Philip Bump put it in an online posting Wednesday on the poll results, Walker is “essentially tied with an entity known as ‘Democratic Challenger.’ Mary Burke, the businesswoman and school board member who is challenging Walker, is still widely unknown, meaning that while the polling in the race continues to tighten, that’s largely a reflection of Walker, not the campaign itself.”
What does that mean for the race? That defining who Mary Burke is will be a big focus for both campaigns. Just look at how the Walker campaign has been criticizing Trek, the bicycle company that was founded by Burke’s father. Mary Burke was previously an executive of the firm. The Walker campaign has launched advertising contending that Trek put jobs overseas instead of in Wisconsin. You can expect that the Walker campaign will continue to work hard to paint Burke in an unfavorable light – just as Burke’s campaign will go to great lengths to promote her, including picking up on an area where she showed some strength in the Law School Poll as someone who “understands people like me.”
With opinions of Walker so strong and so established, opinions of Burke are ripe for attention. The battle for what to think of her will only get more heated. And you can bet that by the first week of November, the percent of people with no answer to whether they regard her favorably or unfavorably will be far less than 49%.
For more information on the poll results, including detailed information on each question, click here.