Highly Polarized Wisconsinites Split Over Walker Plan

March 6, 2011

Substantial support expressed for compromise

Wisconsinites are deeply divided over Gov. Scott Walker’s plans regarding public employee benefits, wages and unions, according to a Wisconsin Policy Research Institute poll showing 51 percent somewhat or strongly opposed and 46 percent somewhat or strongly in favor.

While support for Walker in general has held fairly steady in comparison to last November, in the meantime, opposition to him has solidified and increased. A slight majority of the public disapproves of the actions taken by Senate Democrats to prevent passage of the budget repair bill and overwhelming numbers want public employees to contribute more to their pensions. The public has a favorable opinion of public employee unions, including teachers unions.  Most want Walker to compromise with Democrats and union leaders.

The poll of 603 Wisconsinites was conducted between Feb. 27 and March 1, the day of Walker’s budget address, and has a margin of error of 4 percent. The survey of randomly selected adults included cell phone-users and was directed by Ken Goldstein, a UW-Madison political science professor on leave who is also the co-founder and director of the Big Ten Battleground Poll. It conforms in full with the disclosure requirements of the American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) Code of Professional Ethics and Practice and the AAPOR Transparency Initiative.

Asked what they think the top priority of the governor and the legislature should be, 27 percent said balancing the budget, one percent higher than said improving the state’s economy and protecting jobs. In the November, 2010 WPRI poll, 49 percent of the respondents said that state government’s top priority should be jobs and the economy. 

Nearly six out of ten (59 percent) in the most recent poll said the state budget situation – that is, the balance between government spending and revenues – is a big problem and another 35 percent said it is somewhat of a problem. There is relatively little agreement, however, on how to solve it and – while a slight majority of Wisconsinites  favor paying lower taxes and getting fewer services – there is often much less support for specific cuts.

Aid to local governments and schools: About two-thirds of respondents (67 percent) are either somewhat or strongly opposed to reducing aid to local governments and schools while 31 percent either somewhat or strongly favor it.

Laying off State workers: Two thirds (66 percent) are somewhat or strongly opposed while 30 percent are somewhat or strongly in favor.

Medical assistance: Over six in ten (62 percent) either somewhat or strongly oppose expanding the power of the state Department of Health Services to review and possibly cut state medical assistance programs, which include Medicaid. About one-third (32 percent) are somewhat or strongly in favor.

Pensions: Eight out of ten Wisconsinites (81 percent) favor requiring public employees to contribute to their own pensions while only 18 percent oppose it.

Taxes: Slightly more than half of respondents (52 percent) said they would rather pay lower taxes and get fewer services than pay higher taxes and get more services while 42 percent said the opposite. About twice as many people (72 percent) either somewhat or strongly favor raising income taxes on people making over $150,000 a year as oppose it (27 percent). Wisconsinites are almost evenly split (50 percent in favor and 48 percent opposed) to raising the state sales tax by one percent.

Bargaining rights: Walker has proposed limiting collective bargaining to wages. Exactly half of the respondents (50 percent) say that public employees are willing to compromise on pensions and benefits but limiting bargaining rights does nothing to balance the state’s budget situation and is really just an attempt to get rid of public employee unions. Forty-three percent say the proposed changes are a necessary reform because they will give local governments greater flexibility to control their budgets over several years.

There is real opposition to Governor Walker's proposal to restrict the collective bargaining rights of workers, but the intensity depends on how the question is worded.  When the issue is framed as limiting bargaining rights to help local governments, 47 percent are in favor and 50 percent are opposed.  When the issue is framed as eliminating bargaining rights to ultimately dismantle public employee unions, then the public overwhelmingly disapproves, with 32 in favor and 58 percent opposed.

Wisconsin is highly polarized, and very few Wisconsinites lack opinions about Walker, Democrats and unions.

Walker: Slightly more than half (53 percent) of the respondents have a somewhat or strongly unfavorable opinion of Walker while 43 percent have a somewhat or strongly favorable opinion of him. In a November WPRI poll shortly after Walker was elected, a slightly higher percentage (45 percent) had a somewhat or strongly favorable opinion of him while 35 percent had a somewhat or strongly unfavorable opinion of him and 20 percent either didn’t know or had never heard of him.

Almost two-thirds of respondents (65 percent) say he should compromise with Democrats and public employee unions while one-third (33 percent) say he should stand strong no matter how long protests last.

 “Not surprisingly, this is driven largely by partisan dynamics.  About 77 percent of Republicans think the governor should stand strong and 94 percent of Democrats want a compromise.  The key here is independents.  Independents overwhelmingly want the governor to compromise with 68 percent believing he should do so and 29 percent thinking he should stand strong.”   Goldstein said.

Public employee unions: In the most recent poll, almost six out of ten respondents (59 percent) had a somewhat or strongly favorable opinion of public employee unions. Thirty-four percent had a somewhat or strongly unfavorable opinion.

Senate Democrats: Fifty-one percent disapprove of Senate Democrats’ decision to leave the state in order to prevent passage of the budget repair bill while 47 percent approve.

WPRI – a nonpartisan, not-for-profit think tank – has been conducting surveys on politics and issues for more than 20 years and has commissioned Goldstein to independently conduct polls on a periodic basis.