Something very strange could happen in Wisconsin in November. Aaron Rodgers might just go quietly about his business without saying anything weird? Well, no, not that strange.
It’s possible that national Democrats could get crushed while Democratic Gov. Tony Evers could win a second term and a Democrat might beat Republican Sen. Ron Johnson.
That’s my takeaway from an analysis of polling data by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel veteran political reporter Craig Gilbert over the weekend. Gilbert explored the anomaly in that data that shows a large majority of Wisconsinites saying that the state is “on the wrong track” while also supporting the state’s leader, Evers.
An April Marquette University Law School poll found that only 36% of respondents thought the state was headed in the right direction, but 49% approved of the job Evers was doing, making him the most popular politician in the state. In normal times, those two numbers track pretty closely and a level of pessimism that deep would most likely spell doom for the incumbent governor. But not this year.
There are a variety of possible explanations and it’s likely that in the end it’s a combination of all of them. For one thing, even though people are asked specifically about the state, they can’t help but think about national and international conditions that color their responses. So, Wisconsin might not be able to do much or anything about inflation generally or gas prices in particular or what Vladimir Putin does in Ukraine, but that still impacts their outlook.
People also understand that Wisconsin has divided government. They’ve seen legislative Republicans block Evers at every turn. And, in fact, previous Marquette polls have found that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has extremely low approval ratings. In short, it’s possible that voters blame Vos for the direction of the state, not an unreasonable conclusion.
Maybe the best news for Evers was buried in one line deep in Gilbert’s analysis: “Evers also outperforms the “right direction” number among independents by double digits.”
That’s crucial because it suggests that, in a closely divided state, Evers is still winning over swing voters despite their general pessimism about how things are. You can expect Evers to win almost 100% of Democratic votes even among those who think the state is headed down a rathole and he’ll lose almost 100% of Republicans, even among the very small number who have a happy view of things. It’s the independents who will decide the election, along with which partisan base turns out the most. If issues like guns and abortion light a fire under the Democratic base and independents stick with Evers, he’ll win even in a bad year for his party.
And here’s the thing. I’ll bet that Evers and Johnson are a package deal. If Evers wins, RoJo will be defeated and if the Governor loses, Johnson will win a third term. That’s because ticket splitting is all but a thing of the past in Wisconsin. People vote the party more than the candidate. Also, keep in mind that Johnson’s approval rating back in April was a dismal 36%.
Look, let’s not fool ourselves. The national environment for Democrats is awful. Pres. Joe Biden’s approval ratings are at rock bottom, inflation does not seem to be slackening much, gas prices are at record highs, there’s talk of stagflation, crime remains a problem, immigration issues won’t go away, COVID lingers on… You get the picture. So, there’s no reason not to expect my party to get creamed this fall.
Also, we can’t discount entirely the historic pattern I pointed out last week. In the half century since Wisconsin governors have had a four-year term, a governor who shared a party with the sitting president has won only twice — and both times it was the same governor, the iconic Tommy Thompson.
And, yet, there’s reason to believe that Evers could survive and pull Johnson’s Democratic opponent up with him. Go figure.
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