It was baseball great (and quotation legend) Yogi Berra who said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
And as Professor Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, says, a poll is only a snapshot of public opinion at the time the questions were asked.
So let’s not get carried away with assuming what lies ahead, based on the results of the Marquette Law School Poll that was released on Thursday.
But the fresh round of poll results offers some windows for looking toward what is going to happen in Wisconsin politics, not only in 2016 but in following years.
The results involving the Republican and Democratic race for president attracted the most media attention, which is to be expected. Ironically, they might offer the least guidance among the poll subjects on what is going to happen in Wisconsin since so much is going to change between now and the Wisconsin primary in April.
And the Wisconsin presidential picture already has been volatile – two months ago, the Law School Poll found that Ben Carson was the leader among Republican candidates, and he is now well down the list. And who expected that Bernie Sanders would be such a formidable challenger to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic race, both nationally and in Wisconsin? Or that he would do much better than Clinton in head-to-head matches with leading republican candidates, as the polls results found? Where will this all lead?
But results on some other important matters racing Wisconsin have been less volatile in rounds of polling in recent months and, in some cases, going back several years. When we look at the present results, to what degree are we seeing the future? For example:
In Law School polls going back to last spring, Democratic challenger Russ Feingold has maintained a sizeable lead over Republican incumbent Ron Johnson. In the new poll, it was Feingold 50%, Johnson 37%. And favorable/unfavorable ratings of the two candidates continue to be more positive for Feingold. That includes the finding that 41% of those polled lacked any opinion on Johnson, who has been in the Senate that last five years. Is this the way the race is going to shape up? The unofficial physics of politics says the race will tighten. But the persistence of Feingold’s polling advantages could be significant.
What about Gov. Scott Walker’s poll numbers? Asked to rate his job performance, 38% approved and 57% disapproved in the new poll. That was in line with several recent rounds of Law School polls. Walker’s ratings were remarkably steady throughout 2012, 2013, 2014, and much of 2015, with about half of voters expressing approval, while disapproval ran a few points below half. But Walker’s approval slumped when his presidential campaign slumped. Some (including me) guessed his numbers would look a little better by now because he’s been traveling the state extensively. But they haven’t budged. Is he in a long-term weaker position that could shape his political future? The next election for governor isn’t until 2018, but only 36% of those in the new poll said they wanted to see him run, while 61% did not.
A proposal in the legislature to allow people to carry concealed weapons on school grounds looked a few weeks ago like it had considerable momentum, then seemed to stall. The new poll found strong opposition to the idea, even among those living in homes where a gun is kept. Does that suggest the idea won’t move forward?
In his State of the State address recently, Walker spoke positively about giving more state money to public schools. He has previously advocated tight control over state aid to schools, including cuts in some years. Did his position suggest a change in politics around school spending? Perhaps the results of the new poll shed light: Fifty-seven percent of those polled statewide said their local public schools get too little money from the state, while 30% said they get enough and 7% they get more than they need. Does that suggest a longer term change in support for school spending, which could affect work on the state budget in the first half of 2017?
How much are we seeing the future and not just the present in these results? As Franklin says, poll numbers only describe the present. But they do provide food for thought as major elections and big issues unfold, not only in 2016 but beyond.