Discover more from The Recombobulation Area
In Wisconsin's tossup Senate race, Ron Johnson is the favorite to win, but an upset is possible for Mandela Barnes
Part One of our breakdown of the final pre-election Marquette poll.
The Recombobulation Area is a six-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
The Marquette University Law School Poll is the state’s gold standard of measuring where voters stand, so here at The Recombobulation Area, we take a close look at each new poll.
At the beginning of this election cycle, the two top-of-the-ticket statewide races in Wisconsin were expected to be tossups. Now, after months of campaigning, in the final pre-election Marquette University Law School Poll, how did poll director Charles Franklin characterize both of these races in presenting the latest results? As tossups, of course.
This is Wisconsin, after all. A 50-50 race is always the most likely outcome. Statewide elections here almost always come down to the wire around here.
Incumbent Republican Ron Johnson has the slight edge in the Senate race, up 2% over Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, the Democratic challenger. In the governor’s race, incumbent Democrat Tony Evers is in a dead heat with Republican challenger Tim Michels.
Before we get into the details of these races and some of the key results in this final pre-election poll, let’s not forget the larger dynamic of the midterm election.
For whichever party is in the White House, the opposition party historically has the advantage in the following midterms. This has been the case for every midterm election for 20 years, and between 1934 and 2018, the president’s party gained seats in both the House and Senate only twice, and dating back to 1946, the president’s party has lost vote share from the presidential to the midterm nearly every single time, with the lone exception being 2002, with the nation still reeling from the terrorist attacks on 9/11. The party opposite the president just does better in the midterms. That’s a fact.
And President Joe Biden’s approval rating, while up from earlier this year, is still not strong in Wisconsin. He’s at 41% approve to 54% disapprove, and is a net minus-20 with independents – 36% approve to 56% disapprove. That also adds into the overall edge for Republicans, who are running against a mostly unpopular president.
So, the GOP this year has the big picture advantage. That is amplified by an economic environment that favors Republicans. Inflation comes in as the top issue in this election, and regardless of whether you believe they are the party with the answers to address the problem of inflation, voters are siding with Republicans on this issue. That can’t be denied. Given those fundamentals, Republicans in 50-50 states like Wisconsin should have the advantage – just as Democrats had the advantage when they swept statewide races in 2018.
But because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision on abortion earlier this year, this might not be your typical midterm election. But the extent to which that will impact the races for Senate and governor in Wisconsin remains to be seen. It’s a top issue for Democrats, but it doesn’t rank as highly for Republicans and independents.
And again, this is Wisconsin. This is as unpredictable and closely contested as any state in the nation. With races as close as they are in the polls, anything could really happen. Johnson has had the edge in the Senate race, and Michels has pulled even after Evers has led for much of the year, but there is no comfortable lead in either race.
And while the Marquette poll is still the gold standard in the state, there are many others looking at Wisconsin right now, too. Polling averages are also a good way to understand a bigger picture of these horserace measurements.
Polling is not the entire picture, either. I tend to think of this the way I think about analytics in sports: It’s a wealth of information that can be especially useful, but you still need to watch the games in order to understand the full picture of what’s happening.
So, with races as close as they are and with less than a week to go, the biggest election cliche of all then will be true: It’s going to come down to turnout.
So if you haven’t yet, go vote. I don’t care who you support. Be part of the process. The more people vote, the better our democracy can be.
“Polls don’t vote,” said Franklin in his traditional closing message in polling season. “People do.”
So, let’s get into it.
PART ONE: THE RACE FOR SENATE
Ron Johnson is the favorite to win this race, just as he has been all along.
In late 2021, before Johnson announced that he’d be breaking his two-term pledge to run for a third, I wrote that if he chose to run, “he should be viewed as the favorite in this race, no matter the Democratic opponent.” In August, after Mandela Barnes had an especially good post-primary poll, we cautioned that one good poll does not make him the favorite. At no point in this race has Mandela Barnes had a real lead. However…
If you zoom out for a moment, and take a bigger picture view of this race and all the potential outcomes there could be, Mandela Barnes is still in position to pull off an upset, which is somewhat remarkable. It’s a 50-50 state, he’s going against a two-term incumbent, the 35-year-old has never run a statewide race like this, it’s a midterm year that historically favors Republicans, the economic environment favors Republicans, outside groups opposing Barnes have outspent groups opposing Johnson, and yet, the lieutenant governor is still behind by only 2%, with the race being characterized by the state’s top pollster as a “tossup.” This actually speaks to the strength of his campaign that he has a fighting chance with just days to go before Election Day.
As Angela Lang wrote here at The Recombobulation Area earlier this week, Barnes has weathered racist attack ads with “grace and poise,” and while the most likely outcome is still a Ron Johnson victory, an upset is still very much in play.
So, why is Ron Johnson ahead and why is this race still competitive?
This race has tightened from the early October poll where Johnson had a 6% lead – 52% to 46%. We cautioned last month that this was a poll that showed Johnson with especially strong numbers, and his lead was probably not quite that high. Barnes closing that gap is not a surprising poll result.
But Johnson’s lead in that October poll came on the strength of support from independent voters, and that aspect has remained unchanged. Johnson led by 6% with independent voters in October, and he leads by 7% in this November poll – 53% to 46%. Winning a statewide race in Wisconsin without majority support from independent voters is a tall task.
In 2018, when Tammy Baldwin won re-election by a double-digit margin over Republican Leah Vukmir in a Democratic wave year, she had huge support from independent voters in the final pre-election poll. She led with the group 59% to Vukmir’s 37%. Johnson’s seven-point margin with independents is obviously nowhere close to Baldwin’s 22-point margin with independents in 2018, but he’s also not expected to win by double-digits, as Baldwin did.
In 2022, independents are favoring both incumbents in the top statewide races. In the governor’s race, independents back Evers by a slim margin, 47% to 46%. There could be a not-insignificant number of Johnson-Evers voters in this election, just as there were Walker-Baldwin voters in 2018. With Biden’s approval rating low among independents, perhaps some are seeing Johnson as someone who could be a check on the president from his position in the Senate. Or perhaps there are…other factors.
So, if not from independent voters, where did Barnes improve in the polling from October to November?
The majority of the October poll was completed before the first of the two debates between the candidates. As I wrote and discussed, Barnes did well in those debates, and Johnson did poorly. To whatever extent events like debates truly impact shifting views in a race like this is unclear – voters are far more likely to see an attack ad than watch a debate – but it could be among the reasons Barnes’ support among Democrats grew. Barnes now has 98% support in this race within his party, and he maintains a strong lead among moderate voters – 64% to 33% – and that’s a group that tends to vote Democratic in Wisconsin.
Barnes also saw a bit of a course correction with a subset of voters we’ve been tracking throughout this race: those age 18 to 29.
We’ve noted previously how surprising it was for Ron Johnson to be leading with this group – as he has throughout much of the race. But that changed in a big way in this last pre-election poll. While a composite set of registered voters including polls from August to October in that age group backed Johnson 44% to 42%, this new poll shows Barnes with a huge lead there – 68% to Johnson’s 32%. Perhaps that is the inevitable over-correction of months of polling that showed surprising support with younger voters for Johnson. Or perhaps it took a while for younger voters to truly engage with this race.
And yet at the same time, the age group where Barnes saw his strongest support in October – the mostly-millennial group in the 30-44 age range – instead flipped for Johnson in the November poll. Poll-to-poll fluctuations aside, Barnes will need significant majority support from both of these under-45 age groups to win next week, as the 45-59 age range is solidly Republican and voters over 60 are more evenly split.
Another significant shift from October to November came with voters at lower income levels. Barnes has had a modest lead with those making less $40,000 annually throughout this race, but the final poll shows him up 68% to Johnson’s 30%. Barnes also saw his lead grow in the city of Milwaukee and the gap close in the Green Bay/Appleton media market, but the new poll shows Johnson opening up a lead in the “rest of state” group outside the major media markets.
Most voters also see Barnes as more of an everyman candidate. In the October poll, by 47% to 44%, voters said Mandela Barnes “understands the problems faced by ordinary people in Wisconsin.”
In the new poll, the majority of voters said Mandela Barnes “cares about people like you” by a 52% to 43% margin. For Johnson, that question broke down with just 47% saying he “cares about people like you,” with 49% saying he doesn’t. That’s an important result; those are factors that could swing undecided voters.
Barnes is running to be Wisconsin’s first Black Senator. And he enjoys tremendous support among Black voters in Wisconsin. Because the sample size for this group is small in each individual poll, we grouped together all four post-primary polls to get a better picture of where his support lies. And among Black voters, Barnes is up 74% to Johnson’s 14% (with 12% undecided). Barnes rallied with former president Barack Obama last Saturday, and that event was held in a majority Black neighborhood in Milwaukee, and Obama’s message in many ways centered around driving turnout – and Obama had great success driving turnout in Milwaukee when he was on the ballot a decade ago. If Barnes does pull off the upset, perhaps we could be looking back at that rally as a reason why.
With Hispanic voters, however, Johnson polls better but is still behind Barnes – 50% to 37%. Barnes also leads with voters of other races not specifically identified in the polling, 50% to 38%.
When I wrote about this race for The New York Times Opinion page in August, I said Barnes’ path to overcoming the challenges he’d face in this race could be by way of tapping “into a new pool of Wisconsin voters” – in particular, younger voters and those from Milwaukee. That still seems like a reasonable path for Barnes to find his way to an upset victory, despite trailing with independents. If millennials and Gen Z can come together to back Barnes and he can reverse the post-Obama turnout trends in his hometown of Milwaukee, he could win. Let me reiterate: Despite everything, Mandela Barnes could win this election. It is not outside the realm of possibility.
But the most likely outcome throughout this race is the most likely outcome with just days to go. And that is a re-election victory for Wisconsin’s senior Senator, Ron Johnson.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s won 13 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.