Red flags abound for both parties in Wisconsin’s big election battles this year.
Concerns for Democrats include President Biden’s weak approval, a bad public mood, inflation concerns and the long history of midterm elections, which is quite grim for the ruling party.
Republicans should be able to exploit all of this. But they have a “leader” (Donald Trump) who is more unpopular than Biden. They have an incumbent US Senator, Ron Johnson, who is suffering from his highest negative ratings ever. And the GOP’s top target this fall, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, looks like no breeze, with approval ratings better than Johnson’s, better than Trump’s and better than Biden’s in Wisconsin.
History tells us to expect a very good Republican year. And it could well happen here.
But so far, the Wisconsin poll tells a more complicated story, with danger signs and deep uncertainties for both sides.
This is a closer look at this poll in an election year with massive implications for the political future of the state.
Related:Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson announces his re-election bid, breaking his promise to serve just two terms
Related:Governor Tony Evers does not endorse any Democratic primary candidate for US Senate
What should keep Democrats up at night?
- First, the negative reviews of Biden’s jobs. They are a fundamental drag on Democrats halfway through 2022. The president’s “clear approval” in Wisconsin was minus 9 in a poll conducted late last month by Marquette Law School (43% approval, 52% disapproval). Combining the last two Marquette polls taken in late October 2021 and late February this year, Biden is at minus 23 with Wisconsin men (36% approve, 59% disapprove), minus 17 with independents and minus 21 with rural voters. . For a Democrat, the 79-year-old president is struggling with younger voters: Only 38% of voters under 30 approve of his performance while 54% disapprove.
- Inflation worsens the view of the economy. Two-thirds of Wisconsin voters say they are “very concerned” about inflation, and another 28% say they are “somewhat concerned.” There are major partisan gaps on this issue. But inflation alarm is high across demographic and regional lines. There have been signs in the polls that other issues, such as crime and education, could hurt Democrats this cycle.
- A majority of Wisconsin voters (53%) say the state is on the “wrong track” and only 39% say it is moving in the “right direction.” This trend dates back to last summer, when voters here became markedly more pessimistic. The last time the number of “bad leads” was this high in the state was seven years ago.
What should keep Republicans awake at night?
- The most visible and dominant figure in the GOP is a very unpopular ex-president. In Wisconsin, not only has the public failed to warm up to Trump since he left office, but the opposite has happened. Just before the 2020 presidential election, Trump was viewed favorably by 44% of Wisconsin voters and unfavorably by 54%. Those numbers dipped last summer and fall, and got even worse last month, with 36% now seeing it favorably and 57% unfavorably. That doesn’t mean Democrats can expect to load every Republican candidate with Trump’s baggage. But it doesn’t help the GOP that the nation’s best-known Republican demands loyalty from his party’s candidates, yet is widely hated outside of his political base.
- Midway through his bid for a third term, Johnson has a net preference rating of minus 12 (33% of Wisconsin voters view him favorably and 45% view him unfavorably). Those are his worst numbers in 10 years of Marquette polling. His net preference rating is minus 25 with women, minus 29 with moderates, minus 23 with college graduates and minus 14 with independents. Two caveats here: we don’t know who his Democratic opponent will be (elections are choices, not referendums). And Johnson has rebounded from poor ratings before. His numbers plummeted the year before his last re-election in 2016. But by this point in this election cycle, Johnson was already bouncing back in the polls. That has yet to happen in 2022. In Marquette’s latest poll, 61% of voters — and a third of Republicans — said they had little to no confidence in Johnson as a news source vaccines and coronavirus treatments, an issue he has been very outspoken about. “He’s now in a clearly negative position with maybe time to come back, but we haven’t seen that change in direction for him yet,” said Marquette pollster Charles Franklin.
- Finally, there’s the Governor’s Race, the most important competition for both Wisconsin teams this year. The sobering news for Republicans is that incumbent Democrat Tony Evers has polled pretty well throughout his term. In the latest Marquette poll, 50% approved of his performance and 41% disapproved. Not only are those numbers far better than Johnson’s, they’re far better than Biden’s, suggesting that Evers at least has a chance this fall to ride out the streak of Biden’s negative ratings. In Marquette’s poll, Evers’ support among Democrats is somewhat more intense than Biden’s, and his opposition among Republican voters is considerably less intense. In 18 Marquette polls since taking office, Evers has had only one negative approval rating: last October. But it was basically a washout (45% approval, 46% disapproval).
“Evers is seen as a juicy target by Republicans, but his overall approval trend has been pretty solid,” Franklin said.
The case for Evers’ vulnerability rests in part on the history of midterm elections, which are typically difficult for the president’s party; partly on Biden’s negative job ratings; and in part that a slight majority of Wisconsin voters have been saying since last summer that the state is on the wrong track.
But whether the “wrong track” issue is a pure barometer of a governor’s re-election prospects is one that political pundits disagree on (Franklin is skeptical). In Wisconsin, which has split the government, voters who think the state is on the wrong track include about two-thirds of Republicans (whose mood darkened markedly after Biden won the presidency); about half of the independents; and more than a third of Democrats, most of whom approve of Evers but are unhappy with the Republican Party.
In other words, the “false track” number captures many different things: real discontent with political leaders; reaction to state and national conditions; and voters from both parties are upset about different things and see the governor in very different ways. It’s not good for Evers that 53% of Wisconsin voters think the state is on the wrong track, but that doesn’t mean 53% of voters want him out of office.
So what does the electoral landscape look like in Wisconsin less than eight months before the election?
We have marquee races for the US Senate and Governor that are truly open. Neither Johnson nor Evers have an opponent yet. That will be decided in the state’s August primaries. No one who appears in these two primaries has a notoriety higher than 50%.
The state’s Democratic governor has pretty decent approval ratings. But he has to worry about the pull-down of a Democratic president with much worse numbers, widespread voter discontent and the medium-term trend for outside the party to be more mobilized and independent to punish. the ruling party.
Some of those same factors could boost the Republican state senator, but his public image has become more negative over the past year, complicating his bid for re-election.
Can Republican Johnson take advantage of the national landscape in this midterm election? Can Democrat Evers overcome it? What will be the political effectiveness of their challengers? Will internal divisions get in the way of either side? And what role will an unpopular president and an even more unpopular ex-president play in these contests?
They are all unknowns in a deeply polarized and evenly divided state, and where the margin between winning and losing is often remarkably thin.
We know voters here are not very happy. But we don’t know exactly how they’ll express that this fall.