Campaign for governor may hinge on new answers to old question

A generation ago, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan may have sealed his victory over incumbent Jimmy Carter with this question posed during a televised debate.

“Next Tuesday all of you will go to the polls, will stand there in the polling place and make a decision. I think when you make that decision, it might be well if you would ask yourself: Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago?”

The race for governor in Wisconsin may come down to how voters answer similar “are you better off?” questions from Republican Scott Walker, who was elected in 2010 and who weathered a recall challenge less than two years later, or Democrat Mary Burke, his challenger in an apparently tight race.

For those 90% of likely voters who may have already made up their minds to vote for either Walker or Burke, how — or if — they answer that question may not make much difference. They may be motivated by issues, values, and traditions that have little to do with personal economics.

For those voters who are still undecided about whether they are “better off,” the answer will be intensely personal and perhaps a tipping point in the polling booth: “Do I have a job? Am I paid fairly? Do I have health insurance for myself and my family? Can I buy what I want and save what I need?”

Everyone will have their own metrics, but here are a few statistics that may determine how undecided voters answer the “better off” question:

Job losses: The latest federal figures show that unemployment fell in most Wisconsin cities and counties in July, with a 5.8% statewide average compared to 7.6% in November 2010. Nationally, the jobless rate was 6.2% last month and 9.8% in November 2010. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Wisconsin had the 15th lowest state jobless rate in November 2010 and the 24th lowest in July 2014.

Job gains: Walker set a goal of creating 250,000 jobs in his first term. The total with five months to go is about 103,000 jobs. If the average monthly growth rate holds, Walker’s four-year total will hit about 120,000 jobs. Walker’s predecessor, Democrat Jim Doyle, experienced a wild economic ride over his two terms — with Wisconsin gaining 86,500 jobs in his first four years and losing about 134,000 in his recession-dogged second. The Joint Economic Committee of Congress reported this month that Wisconsin is among 30 states that have yet to recover all the jobs lost during the recession. However, the state appears within range of closing that 37,000-job gap sometime in 2015.

Personal income: Wisconsin’s growth in “personal income,” which includes net earnings from wages, salaries, and several other sources, grew faster than the nation as a whole in 2012 and 2013 after trailing the U.S. average in 2011. In the first quarter of 2014, according to federal figures, Wisconsin led 12 Great Lakes and Plains states in percentage income growth at 3.33%. However, it still trailed the U.S. average (3.55%) and about 20 states.



Health insurance: Figures from the Joint Economic Committee show 9.7% of Wisconsin residents lacked health insurance in 2012 versus 8% in 2007. Nationally, about 15.4% of Americans had no health insurance in 2012, up from 14.7% in 2007. Recent state-by-state surveys that estimated “post-Obamacare” uninsured rates show Wisconsin 13th best in the nation, which is relatively unchanged.

Consumer spending: Wisconsin consumers spent $34,721 per person in 2012, a 2.5% increase from the year before, the U.S. Commerce Department said this month in its first state-by-state breakdown of consumer spending. Nationally, consumer spending grew 3.3% during that time, and in the Great Lakes region, it rose 3.5%. There are no figures available for 2013 or the first half of 2014, when Wisconsin’s personal income growth began to rise.

Are you better off than four years ago? Your answer ultimately depends far more on personal choices and initiative than what state government does or doesn’t do, especially in an economy driven largely by national and global trends. Then again, major elections are all about who sets the tone and provides leadership — which is why Reagan’s 1980 question may yet take on a Wisconsin flavor this fall.

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