Likely Wisconsin Voters Pessimistic About State's Direction, Signaling Close Races

March 2010 

Although Wisconsinites are pessimistic about the direction of both the state and the country and remain anxious about the economic situation, there are some green shoots of optimism in public attitudes, according to a Wisconsin Policy Research Institute poll of likely Wisconsin voters.

A majority of Wisconsinites  – 57 percent -- say the state is on the wrong track while 34 percent say the state is headed in the right direction.  Similar to nationwide surveys, Wisconsinites are more pessimistic about the direction of the country with 62 percent saying the country is on the wrong track.  

Over half (56 percent) of Wisconsinites  believe the state’s economy has gotten worse in the last year while just over one in three (34 percent) say it has remained about the same. Only ten percent say it has improved.  The economic downturn has personally touched a large percentage of Wisconsinites.  Thirty-eight percent of respondents said either they or somebody in their family has lost a job or had their hours reduced in the last year. 

Still, there is some optimism about the future.  Four in ten likely voters expect the state’s economy to get better in the next year and only 14 percent say it will get worse.  While most likely voters don’t think their family’s economic situation will change much over the next year, more (26 percent) expect it to improve than to get worse (10 percent).  

Goldstein notes, “The success and pace of the economic recovery will tell us a lot about the electoral fortunes of the two parties in the fall, both here in Wisconsin and around the country.”

The survey of 600 randomly selected, likely voters in Wisconsin was conducted by phone with live interviewers from March 7-9.  It was directed by Ken Goldstein, a UW-Madison political science professor.  Goldstein has worked on national network election night coverage in every U.S. federal election since 1988, and is currently a consultant for the ABC News elections unit. During the 2008 presidential election, he was also the co-founder and director of the Big Ten Battleground Poll.

Wisconsinites were evenly split on the job performance of President Barack Obama, with 49 percent either somewhat or strongly approving of how he is handling his job and 49 percent either somewhat or strongly disapproving.   These results are consistent with recent national polls.  Also, similar to averages from recent national polls, over half of Wisconsin likely voters (55 percent) say they oppose Obama’s health care reform plan with just under four in ten (37 percent) supporting it.

Governor Jim Doyle – who is not running for re-election – has a job approval rating of 48 percent among likely voters.

In potential match-ups in the open race for Governor, almost a third of likely voters remain undecided about who should replace Doyle and both potential match-ups are tight and within the survey’s margin of error.

Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker leads Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett by four percentage points (36 percent to 32 percent).  Barrett and Mark Neumann, the former Congressman who is now a home builder, are tied with 34 percent of the vote in a head-to-head general election match-up. 

There are also large numbers of undecided voters in the Republican primary race, but if the Republican primary were held today, Walker leads Neumann by 19 percentage points (46 percent to 27 percent). 

Goldstein notes, “Voters still have lots to learn about the candidates.  While all three are viewed favorably by Wisconsin likely voters, with each candidate, almost half of likely voters did not know enough about the candidate to offer an opinion.”

Walker's lead is driven by the huge advantage he has in the Milwaukee media market, which comprises a little over 40 percent of the survey's likely Republican primary electorate. Walker leads 69 to 19 in the Milwaukee media market and the two split the Republican primary vote in the rest of the state.

The Republican primary is an open contest. Walker has a larger lead with self-identified Republicans (50 to 26) than with independents (43 to 28).

Asked this week what they think the top priority should be in Madison, 43 percent said improving the state’s economy and protecting jobs, while just over a quarter (27 percent) said holding the line on taxes and government spending. Smaller percentages focused on health care and education. 

The poll shows incumbent U.S. Senator Russ Feingold leading his only announced challenger, Madison developer Terrence Wall,  47 percent to 32 percent.  Twenty percent remain undecided in a potential Feingold-Wall match-up.

Tommy Thompson has not announced whether he is running for Senate, but there has recently been intense speculation about the plans of the former Republican governor.  In a hypothetical match-up between Feingold and Thompson, fifty-one percent of  likely voters favored Thompson.  Thirty-nine percent would vote for Feingold with nine percent of likely voters undecided in the race.   Feingold enjoys strong support from Democrats and Thompson from Republicans.  What is driving the Thompson lead is the support the Republican is enjoying from independents -- a phenomenon we are seeing across the country.

Goldstein cautioned, “The survey shows a lead for Thompson and a race between these two Badger state political titans would be intense.  Both are well know and viewed favorably.  Still, hypothetical match ups can change once a potential candidate officially enters the race.   Thompson has been out of Wisconsin politics for almost ten years and it will be interesting to see if his support and lead hold up once the back and forth of a campaign starts.”

Wisconsinites appear to harbor serious doubts about their elected leaders. 

  •  Fewer than four in ten (39 percent)  believe the word “trustworthy” describes elected leaders either pretty well or very well.
  •  Fewer than a quarter (23 percent) believe the phrase “capable of solving the state budget deficit” describes elected leaders pretty well or very well.
  •  Fewer than four in ten (38 percent) believe the phrase “cares about people like me” describes elected leaders pretty well or very well.
  •  Over half (57 percent) believe the phrase “only cares what lobbyists and people with money want” describes elected leaders pretty well or very well.
  • Forty-six percent of respondents believe that state government spends too much in taxes on state programs while 25 percent think the state spends the right amount and 22 percent think the state spends too little.

Consistent with what is often found when measuring attitudes toward political leaders, particular leaders tend to fare better than politicians in general.

The sample of Wisconsin adults was selected by random digit dialing (RDD) of landline phones; cell-only households were not included.  The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus four   percentage points. The margin of error will be higher for sub-group analysis.

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

To see Ken Goldstein's presentation on the results, click here

To see a full list of questions and responses, click here

To see the full crosstabs, click here