The Continuing Story of a Strongly Divided Electorate

And in the end, we are at the point where we started – a state that is narrowly divided when it comes to the total number of people on each side of its politics and deeply divided when it comes to how strongly people feel about key issues.

That’s the way it was in 2011 and 2012 in the tumultuous events that led to a recall election for governor. That’s the way it was in an analysis of voting patterns in Wisconsin, and especially in the Milwaukee area, by Craig Gilbert, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Washington Bureau chief, which was the cover story of the current Marquette Lawyer magazine. That’s what the Marquette Law School Poll showed at the start of 2014, as the run-up began to the election for governor, to be held on Tuesday.

And as Charles Franklin, professor of law and public policy and director of the Marquette Law School Poll, said Wednesday, that’s what the final pre-election results showed. Franklin spoke at the conclusion of the “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” session at which the last poll data prior to the Nov. 4 election was released.

The main new story out of the event, of course, was how Republican Gov. Scott Walker was leading Democratic challenger Mary Burke by 50 percent to 43 percent among likely voters. That was an attention-grabbing shift from the Law School Poll results of two weeks ago, when the race was a straight-up tie. Franklin said the difference, in large part, had to do with supporters of Walker showing substantially increased commitment to voting, while supporters of Burke were showing slightly increased commitment. It’s all about turn-out, he said. In fact, among all registered voters in the poll – and that sample included 1,409 people – Walker held only a one point advantage over Burke, 46 percent to 45 percent. But not all registered voters are going to turn out, of course.

But while the spotlight was on the horse race, let’s focus here on the issues. Voters were polled on more than a dozen of them. And the divide between Burke supporters and Walker supporters was huge on many of them.

The most dramatic differences, not surprisingly, involved Act 10, Walker’s signature law, taking away almost all of the powers of most public employee unions. Overall, opinion was closely divided – 50 percent favored keeping the limitations on unions while 43 percent said collective bargaining should be reinstated. But 79 percent of Burke voters favored restoring union powers and 9 percent of Walker supporters favored that, a 70-point difference.

Differences were also enormous on whether voters should have to present photo IDs (which they won’t have to in this election) – 89 percent of Walker voters favored that, compared to 28 percent of Burke voters. That was also true on whether the minimum wage should be increased – 87 percent of Burke votes said yes, 28 percent of Walker voters said yes.

Do you think funding for public elementary and high schools statewide should be increased? Among Walker supporters, 32 percent agreed with that. Among Burke supporters, it was 86 percent. And do you favor expanding the statewide private school voucher program (now capped at 1,000 students, not including kids in Milwaukee and Racine)? Seventy percent of Walker supporters said yes, compared to 27 percent of Burke supporters.

Franklin said there were only two issues on which there were not major differences based on partisanship. They were whether to build a casino in Kenosha (overall, 42 percent favored, 37 percent opposed) and whether first-time drunk driving cases rrests should be treated as criminal misdemeanors or as non-criminal tickets, which is the current practice (overall, 56 percent favored the misdemeanor route, 39 percent the ticket).

Come Tuesday, a governor will be elected, as will, among others, all 99 members of the state Assembly and half of the members of the Senate. And come the spring, all of these elected officials will be involved (some much more than others) in creating a state budget for 2015-17. I’m not willing to bet on who will win in the relatively small number of hotly contested races.

But looking at the poll results, anyone would have to bet that the state Capitol will be filled with heated advocacy from two largely-conflicting and strongly-held viewpoints about what routes Wisconsin should pursue. And how likely is it that elected officials – or many people in the general public –will echo the famous question from Los Angeles beating victim Rodney King: Can we all get along?