Take Five With Charles Franklin: Governor’s race could come down to wire

The 2014 Wisconsin governor’s race is shaping up to be a barnburner. The most recent Marquette University Law School poll has Republican Gov. Scott Walker opening a three-point lead over Democrat Mary Burke among likely voters, but the two are dead even at 46% among registered voters. Both results are within the margin of error for the poll.

All things considered, it’s a very close race that could still go either way. After the poll’s findings were released Wednesday, we spoke with Charles Franklin, professor of law and public policy and director of the Marquette Law School Poll, on the dynamics of the governor’s race. Here are some excerpts:

IB: There has been some movement from poll to poll, but it has remained close throughout. Do you expect the governor’s race to remain close all the way to Election Day?

Franklin: When you’ve seen four months or so of steady, inside-the-margin-of-error results, in our polling and from outside polling organizations, we’re certainly not seeing a trend where you could say, “Okay, this is a steady trend that might continue until Election Day.” Elections can always change, and when a race is as close as this one is right now, you can certainly imagine it tipping a little bit, one way or another.

There have been unexpected policy events on issues like the budget, and we’ll still have another jobs report or two before the election, so it’s always possible for events to play a role and change the issues that are central to voters during a campaign. Having said that, certainly the progress still today has shown no reason for either candidate to think they have a clear advantage at this point.

Charles Franklin

IB: The poll also mentions a shift in enthusiasm toward Republicans. Is it possible for enthusiasm for one side or the other to shift again, or do you expect the GOP voters to maintain that because it’s the second mid-term of an incumbent president, which is never good for the incumbent party?

Franklin: Mid-term elections are almost always not good times for the incumbent party, so that is a bit of a burden on Democrats across the country this year. But in terms of enthusiasm and turnout, those are things that are easier to shift than your preference between Scott Walker and Mary Burke, for example. As we saw, there was a significant shift in Republican enthusiasm and likelihood of voting between August and September, and it’s entirely possible to see that shift more in one direction or the other as we get closer and closer to Election Day.

As we get closer to Election Day, likely voters are more certain of their intentions and more reliable in reporting their turnout. So this is something that still has some time to develop from now until November.

IB: In this poll, the right-track/wrong-track count remains pretty much unchanged [54-42]. I would imagine that’s a good number for Walker, or is it positive but not positive enough to help the incumbent, based on past experience?

Franklin: The right-direction number has hovered in the low-to-mid 50s. It was 54% in this poll, and it was 54% in August. That’s been steady for several months, and that is one of the strongest cases that the governor has working for him. In our previous poll, we asked whether the changes in the state have been good in the long run, and more people said they had been than said they had not.

But there are plenty of other issues that have been quite contentious, and one, the budget issue, is one that is still developing. Back in January, 49% said the state budget was in better shape than it used to be, and only 20% said it was worse [20% said it was the same]. Now, we’ve seen that begin to shift a little bit [now 41-27-25] as we’ve gotten some less positive budget reports over the past month or so. How that develops going forward is still an element that could move a success story in our previous polling to one that’s a little bit more tenuous. Still, quite a bit more people said the budget is in better shape than in worse shape.



IB: In the most recent turnout model, what do you have in terms of Democrats, Republicans, and independents?

Franklin: The shift here is that in both July and August, Republicans were somewhat less likely to turn out than Democrats. In August, 77% of Republicans said they were certain to vote, but 82% of Democrats said they were certain. In September, those have basically reversed. Eighty percent of Republicans now say certain, and Democrats dropped to 73%. That’s quite a shift from one month to the next. It’s an open question as to whether it’s a stable shift that will maintain itself or whether it’s a one-time burst of enthusiasm among Republicans and maybe a bit of a decline among Democrats. It’s an important indicator and one well worth watching. It’s the sort of thing that can change quite a bit month to month, so it bears watching as we get closer to Election Day.

IB: The attorney general’s race between Susan Happ and Brad Schimel has tightened up quite a bit since August. Happ was leading but is dealing with ethical questions now [Schimel’s past includes a DUI conviction]. Did your polling pick up on the reason why that race has tightened?

Franklin: It’s a combination that in August, we were interviewing the week after the Democratic primary. The Schimel campaign obviously didn’t have a primary, so it had not been very visible. Happ had a seven-point lead or so there among registered voters and about a 10-point lead among likely voters. But those two numbers are now within a point of each other. With registered voters, Happ has 39 and Schimel has 38. With likely voters, Happ is 41 and Schimel is 42. So they are within a point of each other either way.

The takeaway, though, is still the enormous number of voters who don’t have any opinion of either of the attorney general candidates. Their name recognition is very low at this point. I’m sure that’s going to change as we move forward, but right now 73% aren’t able to recognize Susan Happ, and 86% are unable to recognize Brad Schimel. Those numbers will move, but they have got to move pretty fast because Election Day is approaching.

Remember that Mary Burke entered the governor’s race last October with 70% unable to recognize her, so that was a little better than these two AG candidates, but still, they are exceptionally high. For some perspective, we did ask about [current AG] J.B. Van Hollen. After eight years in office, 51% didn’t recognize him. So that provides a little perspective on how you can start out with such an enormous percentage unaware of the candidates for the most important statewide race, after the governor’s race.

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