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Is the Republican presidential primary going to be at all competitive?
Plus: Robin Vos' unique unfavorability, the RFK Jr. factor, Nikki Haley, and more from our breakdown of the Marquette University Law School Poll.
The Recombobulation Area is a ten-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written, edited and published by longtime 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. See our breakdown of the June 2023 poll here.
The Recombobulation Area breaks down every edition of the Marquette poll. As we get into the heart of election season in Wisconsin, you’ll want to subscribe to be ahead of the curve on all the latest in this crucial swing state.
1. Is the Republican presidential primary going to be at all competitive?
Since our launch in 2019, The Recombobulation Area has published an in-depth breakdown of every last installment of the Marquette University Law School Poll, the gold standard in polling in the state of Wisconsin.
At the time of our launch, the headline topic was the Democratic presidential primary, and who would be delivering the convention speech for the DNC in Milwaukee (ha!) in 2020 as the nominee to challenge Donald Trump. Polls in September, October, November and December of that year prominently featured the horse race results of what was then a contest between Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, and even, briefly, Mike Bloomberg. We were charting the rise and fall of certain candidates, digging into the crosstabs to see which voters were supporting who, how undecided voters were breaking, and so on.
There’s nothing like that happening now. Donald Trump is lapping the field in this poll of the GOP primary field. Here’s how it currently breaks down:
(Pence, of course, has now suspended his campaign.)
Going back to look at what’s happened since the June poll, Trump’s numbers have improved, DeSantis has seen a double-digit decline, and more than 20% of Republican primary voters remain undecided. The only candidate to see an increase was Nikki Haley, but that rise isn’t exactly stratospheric, going from 3% to 11%.
In October and November of 2019, in the Democratic presidential primary polls, we were seeing Elizabeth Warren’s numbers rise and then fall, Pete Buttiegieg’s numbers start to creep up, and Biden and Sanders remain stable at about 30% and 17%, respectively. There were fascinating things happening under the surface there, too, which were key to understanding what eventually unfolded with Joe Biden — who had by far the strongest support among Black voters in those polls — winning the primary.
There’s no real equivalent from that race to what’s happening now. If you add up every other non-Trump candidate, they’re at 38% — the same as Trump’s current polling level. The former president is so far ahead of every other Republican candidate in this primary.
Digging through the crosstabs, Trump leads with nearly every demographic or category in the poll. He’s ahead in all age groups, all income levels, with all religious preferences, across the ideological spectrum, with men and women, and in all regions of the state.
The only category of note where he trails any other candidate is with college-educated voters with a Bachelor’s degree or higher, where the former president is slightly behind DeSantis, 26%-22% (Trump has sizable leads at all other levels of educational attainment).
In our June breakdown, we noted that some of the high DeSantis numbers looked like they could be a mirage. He still had poor favorability numbers (net minus-15), which is still the case now (net minus-12). The Florida governor was ahead of Trump with men, with those at higher income levels, and in the Milwaukee suburbs. Those leads are all gone now. It remains remarkable the degree to which DeSantis has squandered the opportunity that was before him just a few short months ago.
The only other candidate of interest in the primary is Haley, and we’ll break her numbers down in its own section. The headline result of her head-to-head polling versus Joe Biden — far better than Trump (slightly behind the president) and DeSantis (slightly ahead) — warrants as such.
But the main story of this primary is that any true competition is not materializing in Wisconsin. The state’s presidential primary on April 2, 2024, might prove to be a mere formality. It seems more likely now that Trump will have the primary victory secured by then than any other candidate will even be in the race.
It’s not just Wisconsin, either. If you look at national polling averages, per RealClearPolitics, this is easily the least competitive presidential primary in recent history.
Trump currently has a 44-percentage point lead over his next closest challenger — at 58.5% overall, ahead of DeSantis at 14.4%.
At roughly the same time in the 2020 cycle, Joe Biden had a 7-point lead in the Democratic primary. In November of the 2016 cycle, Trump had a slight lead over Ben Carson, but Trump’s soon opened up to a 15-point lead, about a month later. On the Democratic side in 2016, Hillary Clinton led Bernie Sanders by about a 20-point margin at that time. In the 2012 Republican primary cycle, Herman Cain was slightly ahead of Mitt Romney in early November of 2011. In 2008’s Republican primary, Rudy Giuliani led by about a 15-point margin, and on the Democratic side, Clinton led Barack Obama by about a 22-point margin.
While 2008 obviously saw some of the biggest swings among voters heading into the primary season, the respective leads that candidates enjoyed then are not even close to where Trump is now.
With just over two months to go until the Iowa caucuses (Jan. 15!), the former president’s lead is continuing to widen. In all likelihood, Donald J. Trump will be the one delivering the convention speech in Milwaukee next July. Not that the former president would concede if he were to lose anyway, but he is clearly running away with this.
2. What to make of Nikki Haley’s poll numbers
The Marquette poll looked at three head-to-head matchups between three Republican challengers and the incumbent president. This is how that broke down.
That’s a strong result for the former U.N. Ambassador. She also did the best in that matchup among independent voters, a group that backed Haley 58% to Biden’s 31%. These are very good numbers for her campaign.
But she’s still only polling at 11% in the Republican primary in the state, and is still unknown among a third of all voters. And though she is the only non-Trump candidate with any positive momentum in the race, her support could triple and she’d still be behind the former president.
So these head-to-head numbers are all well and good for Haley, but she’s still not yet a serious contender in this race. She’s pulled up closer to DeSantis, but is still behind him on most metrics — other than with independents, where she’s ahead 17%-12% (Trump is at 35%).
She’s also not doing well with women voters in the primary. Among women polled, Trump is far ahead with 43%, DeSantis next at 15%, and Haley in a distant third at 5% — with 31% of Republican women still undecided (a number that is 19% among men).
Haley is also below 20% in every category or demographic of note, and is in single digits in the Green Bay media market and in northern and western Wisconsin where Trump is dominant.
That head-to-head poll against Biden means nothing if she can’t win the primary. And right now it looks like she can’t win the primary.
It’s Trump’s race to lose (and even if he loses, he won’t concede).
3. The unique unfavorability of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos
The Marquette poll always has a series of favorability polls. Here’s a rundown of those net favorability numbers for the politicians included in this month’s installment, ranked:
Tony Evers: +8
Tammy Baldwin: -2
Nikki Haley: -3
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: -8
Ron Johnson: -10
Ron DeSantis: -12
Cornel West: -14
Joe Biden: -14
Vivek Ramaswamy: -14
Robin Vos: -20
Donald Trump: -24
So, what stands out here?
For one, Tony Evers is the only one polled with a net-positive rating (we covered his surging popularity in our last breakdown). Politicians these days sure are not especially well-liked. And then there’s Donald Trump, who has the worst net favorability rating of anyone polled — and by far the worst among national politicians.
What stands out aside from those on the national stage, who are always more well-known, is the unique unfavorability of Robin Vos.
While Vos is the longest-serving Assembly Speaker in state history and often dominates the political news in Wisconsin, nearly half of voters polled – 46% — have not yet heard enough about him to have an opinion of him.
That may seem rather confounding to those of us who live and breathe the news cycle here in Wisconsin, which is often dominated by the words and actions of the longtime Assembly Speaker, but normal people do not live and breathe the news cycle and are busy living their lives. After all, until he was running for a third term, only about 30% of Wisconsinites had an opinion on our senior senator, Ron Johnson.
But for Vos’ favorability rating to be that far in the red even as roughly half of voters don’t have an opinion of him is staggering. It seems impossible. He’s at 16% favorable to 36% unfavorable.
Sixteen. Percent. Favorable. For a politician of his prominence, that is WILD.
At 36%, this is Vos’ highest unfavorable number on record in the poll, as well as the most negative net favorability rating he’s ever seen.
With women, those numbers are even worse, at just 10% favorable to 33% unfavorable (net minus-23). He has only a 12% favorable rating, at net minus-19, among independents. He’s minus-26 among moderates. He’s viewed unfavorably, by a double digit net-negative margin, in every age group. He’s a net minus-16 in northern and western Wisconsin, minus-26 in the Green Bay media market, minus-27 in the city of Milwaukee, and minus-37 in the Madison market.
I have written dozens of breakdowns of this poll and there is absolutely nothing like the numbers for Robin Vos in this poll. It is an absurd, singular result, that shows just how uniquely unpopular Robin Vos is in Wisconsin.
The legislature that Vos essentially controls has poor approval ratings, too. It has only 40% approval, and a net minus-17. Only 4% of Wisconsin voters strongly approve of the Wisconsin State Legislature, which has been under complete Republican control since 2010, and 25% of state voters strongly disapprove of the job they’re doing.
I asked poll director Charles Franklin about the Vos number, and he said much of the results have to do with how well known he is by members of each party. He’s more well known by Democrats than Republicans.
“He's very much a lightning rod on partisan terms,” said Franklin. “If we set aside the people that don't know him, if you go to the crosstabs, I think you'll find that more Democrats are aware of Vos than Republicans are. And they're very negative towards him. Republicans (are) less aware of him, and they're pretty positive to him. But it's not as many that are aware of him, and with independents, especially, awareness of him is quite low…So that that partisan edge and why Democrats would not be fond of him is kind of clear.”
Franklin is right that independents are the least aware of Vos — 55% “haven’t heard enough.” And Democrats are more aware of Vos than Republicans, but not by a ton — 47% “haven’t heard enough” among Republicans to 41% among Democrats.
The difference there is that among Democrats, Vos is reviled. Only 3% view him favorably to 55% unfavorable, a net minus-52 (and that 3%, notably, is within the margin of error). Among Republicans, 31% view him favorably, but his unfavorable there is 19%, making his net favorability rating among Republicans a net plus-12 — a fairly poor mark to have with one’s own party.
Vos has held office representing his western Racine County district since 2005. The end of his current term will make it 20 years for him in the State Assembly. And at this stage, what is clear is that the public’s opinion of Robin Vos has never been more negative.
4. The Wisconsin Supreme Court, judicial campaigning, impeachment threats, and redistricting
A few items made their first entry into the Marquette poll, and they relate to some of the biggest political stories of 2023 in Wisconsin.
For one, the poll includes a job approval rating for the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Of course, that court flipped majority liberal for the first time in 15 years (or ever, depending on who you ask). The rating there is 51% approve to 43% disapprove.
The poll also asked a question on judicial campaigning, and whether candidates should discuss campaign issues likely to come before them. Republicans have flipped out over Janet Protasiewicz comments on the relative fairness of the state’s legislative maps, threatening to impeach her over those comments, but 80% of voters say judicial candidates should discuss issues during campaigns, with only 19% opposed (with interestingly zero “don’t know” responses, which is uncommon).
The extent to which people had heard of that impeachment threat was also polled, and 31% said they heard “a lot” about it, 39% said “a little”, and 29% had heard “nothing at all.” Far more Democrats (46%) than Republicans or Independents (20% for both) had heard about this.
And then the looming redistricting case itself was polled with 45% saying to redraw the district maps and 51% saying to keep them in place. That result might be a little surprising, considering past polling on the state’s redistricting, but people in these polls often favor the status quo, and if 45% of voters back change, that is pretty notable. It’s actually much higher than I’d expect.
Oral arguments in that redistricting case are now less than two weeks away, so that number could certainly move as it re-enters the news cycle in the coming months.
5. The RFK Jr. Factor
It’s too early to tell whether third-party candidates will have any impact on the presidential race. But the polling on Robert Kennedy Jr. is pretty fascinating.
Marquette didn’t do a direct horse-race poll with Kennedy included, but did survey his favorability and general interest in voting for him, by party.
The controversial third-party candidate is viewed far more favorably by Republicans than Democrats. Democratic voters do not like him much at all — 11% favorable to 61% unfavorable. Republicans and independents have a net-favorable view of him. Well, for now. We’ll see how that changes in the months to come.
But this is something to keep an eye on because if RFK Jr. makes the ballot, that could make a world of difference toward the end result in a state where four of the last six presidential elections were decided by less than 1%.
We’re one year out from Election Day 2024. Lots of recombobulating in our future.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s won 17 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
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