Wisconsin Residents Very Concerned About State's Economy

November 14, 2008

They Are Very Disillusioned With Their State Government and Politicians

Jobs and the economy are the number one concerns in Wisconsin. Residents continue to be disillusioned with the integrity of their state government and political leaders. Wisconsin residents now view the issue of jobs and unemployment as the single biggest problem that state government should be dealing with. In fact their views of the problem of jobs is the highest number we have seen in all the polling we have published going back to January 1988. 31% of Wisconsin residents now believe that unemployment is the single biggest problem in the state. An additional 17% of Wisconsin residents view economic issues as the largest problem facing the state. Combined it means that 48% of Wisconsin residents view jobs, unemployment and the economy as the most critical issues in the state at this time.

These are among the key findings about statewide policy issues from the most recent survey of 600 Wisconsin residents conducted by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, Inc. and Diversified Research between November 9 and 10, 2008.

Jobs and Unemployment—The State’s Biggest Issues

In this survey 31% of respondents identified jobs and unemployment as the number one issue in Wisconsin that government should be doing something about. The compares to last December when only 4% of the people named it as the most important issue. In the current poll it was the number one concern in all areas of the state. In Southeast Wisconsin 43% of the residents named it as the most important issue, followed by 37% of the respondents in Waukesha and 34% in Green Bay. Combining the issues of jobs and economic issues shows that 48% of our residents believe it to be the single biggest problem in the state. That is twice as much of these economic concerns than we have ever seen before. Clearly this is now become the single biggest problem that the state of Wisconsin must deal with.

The Direction of the State

Only 37% of the people in this survey thought that the state of Wisconsin was generally going in the right direction, while 54% thought it was off on the wrong track. There were only two areas in the state that thought we were going in the right direction – 50% of the small towns thought we were going in the right direction while 45% of the residents of LaCrosse thought that. That compares to 40% in LaCrosse and the rest of the state that thought we were on the wrong track. It is interesting that there are some political divides over this particular issue. Only 22% of Republicans thought we were going in the right direction, but 52% of Democrats thought we were going in the right direction, while 39% of Independents thought we were going in the right direction. Ideologically, 56% of Liberals thought we were going in the right direction, but only 18% of Conservatives thought so, while 41% of residents who describe themselves as Middle-of-the-Road thought the state was going in the right direction.

These results are slightly better than last December when 56% of our respondents thought the state off on the wrong track and only 34% thought we were on the right track. Over the fifteen years we have been doing this survey these results in this poll are the second lowest we have ever seen.

As negative as residents were about the direction of Wisconsin, they continue to be overwhelmingly negative about the direction of the nation – only 17% thought we were going in the right direction nationally, while 76% continued to believe we were on the wrong track. This is a surprising number considering that this poll was taken almost a week after the election of Barack Obama.

In this survey only 19% of our respondents thought that their family’s own economic circumstances would improve over the next year. This was the same percentage as last December and continues to be the most pessimism that we have seen in the twenty years we have asked this question in our polls. We asked residents how they view Wisconsin’s economic conditions over the next year. Only 27% thought the state’s economy would improve, while 49% thought it would get worse.

We then asked residents their opinions on how to fix our potential state budget deficit. It was the exact question asked Wisconsin residents in 1992. In this survey 50% thought that the best way to balance the state budget was to cut state spending by 3%, while another 33% thought we should have a pay freeze for state employees. Only 10% of the respondents supported raising state taxes by 3% and just 4% thought we should have a temporary layoff of state workers. These results were different compared to when the question was last asked in 1992. In that survey only 35% supported cutting state spending by 3%, 31% supported a pay freeze, 16% supported raising state taxes by 3% and 17% approved of a temporary lay off of state workers. Clearly Wisconsin residents support the idea of cutting spending and freezing pay for state employees rather than putting a tax increase on the backs of Wisconsin residents.

Integrity of Public Officials

We asked whether people thought how people viewed the spending of tax dollars. 56% thought that we spend too much, 27% thought that spending was about right and only 5% thought that we spend too little. Again, these are results that are almost exactly the same as when this question was asked twenty years ago.

Government Integrity

We asked our residents how much they thought they could trust state government to do what is right. Only 1% thought just about always, 28% said most of the time and 65% said only some of the time. What was remarkable demographically about this question was that there were four areas of the state where no one said just about always – the City of Milwaukee, Green Bay, Southeastern Wisconsin and Waukesha County. We then asked whose interests do you think elected officials represent the most. 45% said special interests, 38% said their own interests and only 13% thought that elected officials represented the voters interests.

Finally we asked one other tracking question on who has the most power to determine what the state government spends. Only 17% said voters, while 70% said lobbying groups. These results were slightly higher than when we asked this question going back to 1990, but they still represent an extremely negative opinion of the rights of residents compared to lobbying groups in Madison.

Honesty and Ethics of Various Professions

Finally we asked residents to rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in various fields. The spreads are very interesting. For firefighters, 81% rated their integrity as high while only 2% rated it low, however, for Wisconsin lobbyists only 7% rated their ethics as high while 52% rated it as low.

Residents have a very low opinion of their state’s politicians. Only 11% rated them high on their honesty and ethical standards while 37% rated them as low. It is fair to point out that Wisconsin politician’s ethical standards and honesty at 11% were rated slightly higher than car salesmen at 9% and Wisconsin lobbyists at 7%.


There is little doubt that jobs and unemployment has become the most important issue in Wisconsin, closely followed by concern over the state’s economy. Residents are clearly pessimistic about the state’s economic situation for the upcoming year. They are also very clear that they are not interested in raising taxes to solve the state’s economic or budget problems.

What should be of major concern, however, is the continuing disconnect between residents and their elected officials. Only 1% of the people in the state believe that their state government will do the right thing almost all of the time. Only 3% believe that the standards of ethics in our state legislature has gotten better over the last decade. Only 17% believe that Wisconsin voters have the power to decide what state government spends.

This continuing disconnect is enhanced by how Wisconsin residents view the honesty and ethics of various occupations. The public draws a very clear line between individuals who they perceive as serving the common good – such as firefighters and national guardsmen – versus occupations they believe have very little integrity including politicians, car salesmen and lobbyists. It raises a very disturbing question. If Wisconsin is facing serious economic and financial problems, will the public support solutions from government institutions whose values and priorities they have very little respect for?


This study of 600 Wisconsin residents was conducted by telephone between November 9 and November 10, 2008. A total of 600 Wisconsin residents were interviewed. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 4% for percentages of the whole sample. For a percentage near 50%, for example, this means that repeated samples would produce results between 47% and 53%, 95 times out of 100.

This study was commissioned by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, Inc. The Institute was founded in 1987, and its mandate is to examine issues of public policy facing Wisconsin, using a nonpartisan approach.

Dr. Michael LaVelle, President of Diversified Research, a nationally known survey research company supervised the project. Dr. LaVelle has a Ph.D. and has taught statistics and social research methods at the university level. He has been President of Diversified Research since 1982 and has over thirty years experience in survey research.

To see the full survey results, click here.