The story will be the horse race. It always is. Governor Walker and likely Democratic challenger Mary Burke are in a dead heat. But there are a couple of interesting subplots in the latest numbers from the Marquette Law School Poll.
Like many Democratic candidates, Burke fares especially well with younger voters, and with those who are single (never married, widowed, or divorced). Governor Walker, the Republican, scores best with those who are middle-age and married. This is essentially the same voter behavior we saw in the 2012 presidential election. But in a non-presidential year, the question for Burke will be whether those in the demographics who like her most will show up at the polls.
While the Burke campaign is undoubtedly pleased that the race appears close, one of the poll’s results may be cause for concern for her — 49 per cent of voters say they still don’t know enough about Burke to have an opinion of her. That spells opportunity for the Walker campaign, which has unleashed a series of ads recently, rushing to define Burke before she defines herself.
Earlier this year, Burke passed on an opportunity to appear with President Obama in Wisconsin, fueling speculation that her campaign had determined it would be politically unwise to campaign with the president. Burke denied that charge in an interview I did with her at the time. Interestingly, the poll shows that the president is more popular in Wisconsin than he is in a lot of places. Or perhaps, more accurately stated, less unpopular. His signature health care legislation is facing legal challenges. He’s under fire for his handling of foreign policy issues, and nationally, his polling numbers are in the tank. In fact, the RealClearPolitics Web site calculated an average of recent polls that shows only 43 percent of Americans approve of how Obama is handling his job, while 52 percent disapprove. But in Wisconsin, the president outperforms the national polls, something he has done frequently in the past. His job approval rating is evenly split, 46 percent approving and 47 percent disapproving. And 51 percent of respondents have a favorable opinion of the president. Just 44 per cent have an unfavorable opinion. Still, anti-Obama sentiment is strong in some parts of the state. At a recent debate, all four Republican candidates in Wisconsin’s 6th District Congressional race argued the president should be impeached.
The poll also contains a somewhat perplexing result for Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson. He’s been in office nearly four years, appears in the news regularly, and has been an outspoken critic of the president and his policies. But Johnson remains something of an unknown to a significant number of Wisconsin voters. In the Law School Poll results released Wednesday, 40 percent say they don’t have an opinion of him. Twenty-nine percent of respondents have a favorable view of Johnson. Twenty-nine percent have an unfavorable opinion. Contrast that to Johnson’s Democratic counterpart, U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, who was elected less than two years ago. Only 28 per cent of state voters don’t have an opinion of her, while 35 percent had a favorable opinion and 32 percent an unfavorable opinion.
In 2010, the Tea Party movement helped sweep Johnson into office, but the latest Law School Poll shows public attitudes toward the Tea Party today are more negative than positive. Twenty-three percent have a favorable opinion of the Tea Party. Forty-six per cent have an unfavorable opinion.
It’s virtually certain Johnson will face a strong Democratic challenge in 2016, with the names of former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold and U.S. Representative Ron Kind being mentioned most prominently. Johnson, a wealthy businessman who left his successful manufacturing company to run for office, shows little public concern about poll numbers or re-election prospects. But you can be sure that potential Democratic candidates, as well as leading Republicans other than Johnson, are taking note.