Wisconsin Poll Results: Should Walker Be Concerned?

On its face, the latest poll from Wisconsin doesn't seem to offer much in the way of conclusions. But dig a bit and the poll offers a guide to the potential pitfalls of the Scott Walker campaign in the upcoming months, as the governor prepares for a likely recall election.

The key results are sort of bland. The poll of registered voters, the second one of the monthly polls conducted by Marquette University Law School, showed Walker's favorability rating to have slipped slightly. While 50 percent of respondents rated the governor's job favorably in January, only 46 percent did this time around. Meanwhile his negatives were up a bit—from 45 percent to 48. Certainly not good news for Walker, but hardly catastrophic.

Meanwhile, there's been almost no movement among the Democrats who seem like potential challengers to Walker, assuming a recall occurs. Most have little name recognition; of the five Democrats the poll asked about, all had at least 47 percent of respondents giving a "don't know."  Of course, the election period has not officially begun, it's hardly surprising that the likely candidates aren't well known.

"It's too early to read these tea leaves too carefully," said Charles Franklin, the political scientist who conducted the poll.

The more interesting elements came later in the poll: both the ongoing "John Doe" investigation around Walker and questions about his record could both prove to be significant problems for the polarizing governor should things not go his way. They could also become non-issues.

This was the first time a poll has asked about the John Doe investigation according to Franklin. The investigation has been ongoing for months, examining various activities in the Milwaukee County executive office during Walker's time as an executive. (Andy Kroll at Mother Jones has a great summary of the John Doe investigation for those who aren't up-to-speed.) Little is known about the long-term goals of the investigation, but a number of people close to Walker have been implicated. Several have been arrested, and one former Walker aide has pled guilty to two misdemeanors. Walker himself announced that he would meet with the Milwaukee County DA and that he had retained counsel.

The poll results show a pretty partisan breakdown on the investigation—while 75 percent of Republicans and Democrats were aware of the investigation, only 56 percent of independents were. Partisanship also colored the interpretation of the investigation. As the polling press release announced:

Sixty-eight percent of Republicans said it is “just more politics,” with 25 percent saying it is “something serious,” compared to 16 percent of Democrats who see it as “just more politics” and 80 percent “something serious.” Among those independents who had heard of the investigation, 45 percent said it was “just more politics” while 32 percent said it was “something serious.

But Franklin says depending on how things go, the breakdown is likely to get less partisan. If the investigation implicates Walker or goes poorly for him, Republicans may cross over to thinking it's serious, while if the investigation moves away from Walker, Democrats may not care as much. "When a scandal sends a clear message," says Franklin, "it tends to reduce the partisan biases and bring in the independents as well." While it's never a good thing to have an investigation, Franklin said, "It could be very bad for the governor. It could be on balance not so bad."

Then there's the question of Walker's actual record. Walker has made job growth a key plank in his campaign and continues to go around the state arguing that his jobs policies—the Wisconsin: Open For Business model if you will—is working. 

Apparently his messaging isn't working as well as he hopes. The poll showed a gap in how respondents thought the country was going versus Wisconsin. While 31 percent said jobs had increased nationally, only 22 percent said jobs had increased in Wisconsin. "It's clear that the public perception is not that the state is on average gaining jobs but that average losing jobs," says Franklin.Meanwhile, when asked about the effect last year's legislation had on the state economy, 34 percent said it had increased jobs while 56 percent said it had either had no effect or decreased. 

The perceptions aren't wrong. As I noted when the last Wisconsin poll came out, Walker is far behind his promise of creating 250,000 jobs. In fact, according to the state's Department of Workforce Development, the state has only netted 2,500 jobs in the last year. For the last six months, the state has lost jobs. Meanwhile, the country as a whole has gained jobs. 

Franklin is quick to point out that there's months to go before any recall elections actually occur and "still much room for [jobs numbers] to shift one way or another." Walker could get lucky and see jobs numbers improve in the next few months.

But also up for grabs is what the central issue of this election will be. If the anti-Walker forces will likely focus on the John Doe case, the lack of jobs and of course, Walker's anti-union legislation. It's an altogether different question whether they can make those the salient issues that people actually vote on.  Walker has a enormous pot of money he's gathered from big contributions, largely from out of state, and he'll likely use that to argue that his policies are working. "It's up to the candidates to persuade voters on either of those sides," says Franklin.
Luck—in terms of whether the investigation leads and where job numbers fall—will play a big role. Walker has a lot of money. But as evidenced by the over one million petitions to recall Walker, there are also a lot of very energized folks out there, eager to get him out.

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