The Marquette Law School Poll’s Version of the Sounds of Silence

The big story coming out of the release Wednesday of a new round of results from the Marquette Law School Poll was that Republican Gov. Scott Walker had opened up a bit more distance over Democratic challenger Mary Burke that was seen in recent rounds of polling. Among likely voters, Walker was supported by 50% and Burke by 45%. As Professor Charles Franklin, director of the poll said, this is still a close race. But there were indicators of some trends in Walker’s direction.

Both in the news media (for sure in Wisconsin and, in some cases, nationally) and within the world of political activists, the poll results will be analyzed carefully to see what people are saying. The Marquette Law School Poll has become the principle source of information on Wisconsin public opinion on major issues, especially political races.

But instead of focusing on what people are saying, permit me here to focus on what people are not saying. Politics, even in the midst of a heated election season, is not of interest to everyone. So here are a few examples of non-involvement:

– Overall, with five weeks to go to the election, more than eight out of ten people polled, all of them identifying themselves as registered voters, did not have an opinion on either of the candidates for attorney general, Republican Brad Schimel and Democrat Susan Happ, when they were asked their views and not told the candidate’s party affiliation. That number will presumably come down as the election gets closer, especially if the candidates put up a significant number of television ads. But attorney general is an important office, the race has attracted a fair amount of news coverage – and many people clearly aren’t tuning in to it.

– The flap over Burke using passages from position papers of other Democratic candidates around the country in her proposals for dealing with job growth has been given much attention and been the subject of strong criticism in Walker advertisements and campaign appearances. Yet only 54% of those polled said they had read or heard about the issue.

– Recently released information placed Wisconsin in 33rd place in the nation when it came to job creation, and that is an issue that Burke’s campaign is pushing in its criticism of Walker. Only 53% of people said they had read or heard about this.

– One in five registered voters are unaware that they will be required to show a photo ID in order to vote in this election, an issue that has received a large amount of public attention in recent weeks, following a federal appeals court ruling. (That said, only 1.3% said they did not have a photo ID.)

– Even this deep into the campaign for governor, 26% of registered voters said they didn’t know enough about Burke to have an opinion about her. That’s down from early points in the race when the percentage was as high as 70%. Nonetheless, a quarter of people polled don’t know what to think of her at this point? Seems striking to me. (This isn’t true of the highly visible, highly polarizing Walker – just about everyone has an opinion on him, and the opinions are generally evenly split.)

It is well established that Wisconsin generally has one of the highest voter turn-out rates in the nation. It is also well established that turn-out in elections that don’t involve a race for president is lower than in those that do have the presidency on the ballot. So perhaps I should be more charitable in my perspective on this.

But I admit it does make me uneasy. As a long-time news reporter, I got used to the reality years ago that large numbers of people I would run into had no idea about what was in the news, including when matters I was covering were prominent at the time. I never took it personally, even when such people were in my immediate family. But I was a bit of a news junky as a kid, long before I envisioned a career in the news business. I can’t imagine myself not having some idea of what are the big things going on in the city, state, nation, and world where I live.

But lots of people are not me. And I don’t know what to do about this anyway. There’s tons of information available easily in today’s world, so it isn’t like people are unable to become knowledgeable if they want to be. And you can’t force them. Sometimes I’m not even sure this is a problem – it’s a free country and you have the right to not know what’s going on around you, no matter how readily available it is.

But somehow, I still regard a knowledgeable public – especially knowledgeable voters – as a big asset to a functioning democracy. Hurray for those who choose to stay up on what’s going on and who choose to play the role citizens can play, including voting.

And, if I may say so, given my involvement in the effort, hurray for the Marquette Law School Poll, which continues to grow as a resource for and wealthy repository of knowledge, available to all, giving a great array of snapshots of public thinking in Wisconsin on major issues.

Even if the results show that striking numbers of them are not thinking too much about those issues.