Latest MU Poll: Not So Good for Dems

The latest Marquette Law School Poll is out and it has some cautionary tales to tell Democrats. It’s not a tragic story just yet, but I found it pretty disappointing overall. Let’s dig in. 

Confusing numbers on Barnes-Johnson. As a Democrat I was disappointed in these numbers, which had U.S. Senate candidates Mandela Barnes and Ron Johnson in a dead heat with Johnson holding a meaningless one point lead, 48 percent to 47 percent. Barnes had held a significant seven point lead right after the August primary and, frankly, I thought that was going to stick. Nope. It’s all gone. The reason seems to be that RoJo’s negative ads, attacking Barnes with some of his own befuddling statements, are hitting home. His net favorable rating went from a +15 in August to a +1 only four weeks later. What’s confusing about this is that Johnson is acting desperate. He’s challenged Barnes to debates, a common strategy of underdogs. And he’s been running ads trying to reintroduce himself to Wisconsin voters after 12 years in office, a sign that his negative image isn’t going away. This feels much better for Barnes, but I live in the Madison echo chamber. We’ll see. 

Michels’ negative ads seem to also be working. I had hoped that when Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels jumped from seven points down to just two points behind incumbent Democrat Tony Evers in August that was just a post-primary bounce. But it has been sustained. Basically, that race is unchanged in the last month with Evers’ lead now at an also meaningless 44-43 percent among registered voters compared to 45-43 percent in August. But the thing to worry about is that Michels and his third party operatives have driven up Evers’ negatives. Evers’ approval rating for how he’s handled his job is now a net negative 3 compared to plus 9 back in February. 

Beglinger’s numbers are troubling. I was at a loss as to why independent candidate Joan Beglinger was in the race for governor. Her positions pretty much mirrored those of Michels. Well, apparently she got the message because she dropped out on Sept. 6 just as Marquette was starting its poll. Probably because most of her supporters hadn’t heard that news, her numbers were about the same as they were in August, a surprisingly high 8 percent. But now, what would have been great news for Evers had she stayed in the race turns troubling. That’s because, now that Beglinger is not campaigning (though she’ll remain on the ballot), almost all of her votes will go to Michels. It suggests that it’s not so much a dead heat as maybe a four- or five-point Michels lead at this point. 

The issue terrain is not good. National Democrats believe that the abortion issue will carry them to success in November. But the MU poll is not bearing this out. Here are the most important issues in order of concern for voters: inflation, crime, accurate vote count, public schools, gun violence, abortion policy, taxes, climate change, illegal immigration and coronavirus. By my reckoning, Republicans hold the upper hand on all of the top four and, with the recent news on inflation, that issue is almost certain to remain at the top of the list. Yeah, I know, most of us are pro-choice. But how many of us will vote on that issue? Ninety-four percent of Wisconsinites are very or somewhat concerned about inflation while 77 percent of us feel the same way about abortion. This result conflicts with the results in several states’ primary elections this summer where abortion has driven turnout for pro-choice candidates and ballot questions. 

Biden continues to be a drag. I had thought that with a string of legislative victories under his belt and gas prices coming down, President Joe Biden’s approval ratings would be on the rise. Instead, they were exactly the same (40 percent approve of the job he’s doing compared to 55 percent who don’t) as they were in August. 

Look, I’m not pressing the panic button. There’s countervailing news in the poll as well. Michels’ and Johnson’s approval ratings remain underwater as the percentage of those with no opinion about them shrinks. And on questions of personal traits, like which candidate understands your concerns, Evers and Barnes hold leads over their Republican opponents. Finally, while abortion may be down on the list of issues, it could be a motivating factor that will increase Democratic turnout. 

But overall, after lots of encouraging news in the August poll and more upbeat signs from other states, this latest Marquette poll curbs my enthusiasm. 

Barnes seems to be giving up on Brewer fans.

Postscript: I listen to a lot of Brewer games. (And by the way, those of us who gave the Crew up for dead a couple of weeks ago should be ashamed of ourselves. Our guys are only a couple games out of capturing the last playoff spot in the NL.) Ron Johnson has been advertising on the broadcasts all summer. His latest ad is particularly effective. It’s a faux job interview in which the interviewer grills Mandela Barnes (she doesn’t get any responses from the candidate) about his job experience, which she emphasizes contains no private sector employment. I was in a North Woods bar yesterday catching some of the Badger game when a pro-Barnes ad came on. I overheard two guys at the bar repeating almost verbatim what the RoJo attack ad said about Barnes’ lack of private sector experience. RoJo also has ads that hit Barnes on his close ties to unpopular hard-left Democrats, like AOC, and claiming that he’s weak on crime. All of that should have been expected. My question is: where’s Barnes? His campaign hasn’t run a single ad, as far as I know. on the Brewer games. If they’re just giving up on this demographic I think they’re committing an error.

A version of this piece originally appeared in Isthmus.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

6 thoughts on “Latest MU Poll: Not So Good for Dems

  1. Barnes is having the most predictable troubles possible, that the campaign was not ready for them is a problem. In the primary whenever anybody brought up these issues they quickly silenced by calls of Racism and they quickly folded. Surprisingly, Ron Johnson doesn’t seem that phased by it, and we’re paying for the lack of competitive spirit in the primary now


  2. Evers is going the Elizabeth Warren route on inflation, blaming “price gougers”. He’s going to need to do better than that, or stay away from the issue entirely.


  3. If I read your commentary correctly, you blame tepid and declining poll results on opposition negative ads against Barnes and Evers. Perhaps it’s just that they’re undesirable candidates. Voters become more aware of Barnes’ radical history with the Working Families Party and his ignorant race baiting pronouncements post Jacob Blake. And folks remember Governor Evers’ continual attempts to act illegally during the Covid lockdowns and repeated slapdowns by the Court.


  4. Did you watch Biden’s speech Dave? The Democratic party is framing itself in extremely divisive terms. The comparisons to Leni Riefenstahl staging are on the mark.
    Barnes – I have no interest in career politicians. If you haven’t worked in the private sector, you are disconnected from the lives of most people.
    Evers – milquetoast, except when he acted illegally in enforcing mandates, which the Republicans finally got a spine up and held him to his constitutional authority.


  5. Re: Political ads during baseball broadcasts. I’m no expert in demographics but I would guess that most of the people who listen to baseball on the radio (I do, a lot.) are older, whiter, more rural men, the wheelhouse for today’s Republican base. I’m not sure the money spent on ads for Mandela Barnes would change many minds in that audience. You’re probably right, though, that the Democrats should not just wave the white flag among that crowd. This is going to be a close election and my side needs every vote it can get.


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