The ultra-close governor’s race between Tony Evers and Tim Michels is a true tossup, but “red wave” potential looms in Wisconsin
Part Two 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.
This is Part Two of our breakdown of the final pre-election edition of the Marquette University Law School Poll. If you missed part one, we took a look at the big picture conditions for this midterm election year, and broke down the race for Senate in Wisconsin. Do read that one first before you get into this one.
Before we break down the race for governor, though, let’s address the elephant in the room: The polls have been off before.
The Marquette poll wasn’t as bad as some of the other polls that showed Biden carrying leads in the double-digit range into Election Day, but it still underestimated Donald Trump and Republicans in 2020. Polling in 2016 underestimated both Trump and Ron Johnson when he defeated Russ Feingold and outran Trump. Republicans have been underestimated in the polling, and Wisconsin has been one of the main examples of that (if not the main example).
The Marquette poll nailed the elections almost exactly in 2018, though, which can’t be discounted. Trump being on the ballot seemed to have a unique ability to scramble polling across the nation. This year’s elections will certainly be a test of how pollsters are adjusting to a new reality and learning from recent mistakes.
But we won’t know how that shakes out until we’re able to recombobulate after the election, so let’s read the poll that’s in front of us.
Let’s get into it.
THE RACE FOR GOVERNOR
Months of campaigning and more than $100 million later, whattaya know, the race for governor in Wisconsin is a tossup.
With such a close race again being projected for Wisconsin’s gubernatorial election, we took a look back at the last time such a close race was projected – just four years ago, when Tony Evers defeated incumbent Republican Scott Walker by 1.1%.
Let’s first compare the topline results from the final pre-election poll from each year.
We seem to have detected a similarity here. Wisconsin’s electorate is extremely polarized and there are not too many swing voters in the gubernatorial race. National waves seem to have more of an impact on federal races than state races in Wisconsin.
Nevertheless, Michels has seen steady progress from poll to poll throughout this general election cycle, even though it’s always been close. In August, the poll showed Evers at 48% to Michels’ 44%, and Evers has held relatively steady at 47%-48%, with Michels rising in the final poll to make it an even race at 48%. The history of midterm elections and the high-inflation economic environment favors Republicans, and Evers’ once-high approval ratings are now in the net negative after a relentlessly negative campaign cycle.
So, along with the race being dead even, what else is similar from 2018? What is different?
There are a lot of similarities. In both races, independents ever-so-slightly favored Evers. The 45-59-year-olds backed the Republican and the 18-29-year-old voters sided with the Democrat.
Many of the same dynamics are at play, but with some small but important shifts.
Walker’s electoral strength during his time as governor came largely from the suburbs. Post-Trump, the Republican Party has shifted to be more rural. The Republican primary seemed to illustrate this well, as Michels won 62 of the state’s 72 counties, with Rebecca Kleefisch mostly winning in areas in and around larger cities in an eventual loss. So from a regional standpoint, it makes sense that Michels is doing better than Walker in the “rest of state” group outside of the three major media markets. Walker was up 49% to 47% with that group and Michels is up 56% to 42% there. Walker had a +15 net margin in the “rest of Milwaukee” suburban and exurban areas, while Michels is a bit lower at +11. Evers is doing better in 2022 with voters in the Green Bay/Appleton market and in the city of Milwaukee than he did in 2018. The margins in the Madison media market are almost identical from year to year.
Also shifting is what’s happening with lower income voters. Michels has emphasized trying to run a more working class style of campaign, but he’s faring even worse than Walker with voters making under $40,000. Evers was net +12 with that group in 2018 and is polling at net +34 now. Michels is polling better than Walker with voters making more than $75,000.
Moderate voters, who tend to vote for Democrats in Wisconsin, are also shifting more toward Evers – the governor is at 65% to Michels’ 26% with that group, compared to 57% to 32% when it was Evers-Walker.
And it will not surprise you to see that the gender gap in this election has widened a bit further. Here’s how that compares:
Evers 42% - Walker 54%
Evers 38% - Michels 56%
Evers 52% - Walker 42%
Evers 57% - Michels 41%
All that said, this race is just as much of a tossup as the one four years ago.
But there is one real red flag for Democrats in this poll, and it comes on a key question for a gubernatorial race. The question in the poll is this:
“Thinking just about the state of Wisconsin, do you feel things in Wisconsin are generally going in the right direction, or do you feel things have gotten off on the wrong track?”
The vast majority of voters say Wisconsin is on the wrong track. This poll shows just 35% of voters say Wisconsin is headed in the right direction, while 57% say the state is on the wrong track. And while it stands to reason that some may be responding to this poll with a “wrong track” answer based on the actions of the incredibly powerful Republican-controlled state legislature, Democrats, liberals and those Dem-leaning moderates are basically the only groups where a majority of voters say the state is headed in the right direction. Most voters in every age group, education level, and income level say the state is on the wrong track.
Incumbency can have its advantages in a tight race like this one, but this dissatisfaction with the direction of the state during his time as governor could be a real problem for Evers on Election Day.
Evers does have a distinct edge in two other key questions, though. Those questions are on which candidate “shares your values” and who “cares about people like you.” On both questions, Evers polls very well. In fact, he polls better than any of the four top-of-the-ticket candidates on both of those questions.
Evers is the only candidate in the positive on the “values” question – 50% to 47% – and he is far ahead of Michels on the question about who “cares about people like you” – 56% to 41% (52%-40% with registered voters, see chart) to Michels’ 46% to 47% (43%-46%). That could be a real difference-maker.
“I know I’m not the flashiest guy in the room,” Evers said at last weekend’s rally with former president Barack Obama, “But I believe in compassion, respect and fairness, and I believe Wisconsin is strongest when we work together.” It seems like most Wisconsin voters agree with the governor on that point.
Two of the issues in this election that have gained a lot of attention, particularly through the endless stream of ads in this, the most expensive gubernatorial race in the nation, are crime and abortion. Looking at the polling, it’s easy to see why.
On abortion, only 11% of voters say the state should not allow exceptions for rape and incest. This has been a remarkably consistent polling result throughout, and even more than 70% of Republicans say those exceptions should be allowed.
On crime, the discussion has in many ways turned to police funding. Democrats up and down the ticket have been attacked for wanting to defund the police. And 80% of Wisconsin voters favor increasing police funding, with just 13% opposed.
So, with those two overwhelming poll results, it’s easy to see why we’ve seen so many ads about abortion and about defunding the police this year.
The last thing making this poll a little bit hard to read is the presence of independent candidate Joan Beglinger. With a race this close, every little factor matters, and while she has dropped out of the race and endorsed Michels, Beglinger will be on the ballot. And in this dead heat race, she polled at 2%. A 2% victory would basically be a landslide in this dead-heat race. It’s really difficult to predict how those responding in favor of Beglinger might break on Election Day.
She showed up in a pretty strange way in our analysis of how this race breaks down by race and ethnicity. Just as we did for the Senate race, we grouped all four post-primary polls to get a sample size large enough to show where minority voters stand going into the election. Here’s what we found on the gubernatorial race.
That’s right, both Evers and Beglinger are outpolling Michels among Black voters. Evers leads among Black voters with 67%, with Michels at 10% and Beglinger at 13%. Again, this is grouping together registered voters from the last four polls. Like all Beglinger-specific results, I don’t even know what to do with this one. It was just too weird not to include here. But her inclusion on the ballot and how voters respond to the independent candidate — if at all — could wind up mattering a great deal in a race this close.
This is an important race.
Like in 2018, the outcome of the gubernatorial election will likely set the tone for races for Attorney General, State Treasurer and perhaps even Secretary of State.
But more than the race for Senate, this will have huge implications on day-to-day politics and life in Wisconsin for the next four years and beyond. The New York Time’ podcast “The Run-Up” detailed this in many ways, but winning back the governor’s office is something of a defeat-the-final-boss moment for Republicans.
Wisconsin Republicans have given themselves entrenched one-party rule in the state legislature through gerrymandering, and a Michels win would allow them to remake the state however they would so choose, on issues ranging from education to taxes to management of the state’s natural resources to the state’s broken local funding formula to public safety to economic development to talent attraction and workforce development to clean water to abortion to gun access to LGBTQ rights to civil rights to workers rights to disability rights to voting rights to the very foundations of the state’s representative democracy. There’s a lot on the line.
There is also a real chance Republicans could gain a supermajority in both chambers of the state legislature. Both statewide races, for Senate and the race for governor, are tossups with days to go before the election, but because of the maps Republicans drew for themselves, they could win two-thirds of seats in the legislature. Some system they’ve devised for themselves, isn’t it?
That type of entrenched power structure, where Democrats and half of the state’s voters are cut out of the political equation, is what the state of Wisconsin will be facing under a Michels win, or if Republicans pick up one seat in the State Senate and five seats in the State Assembly.
Just one path out would remain in such a scenario, and that lies in the Spring Election. There will be an open seat on the State Supreme Court, and that election will determine the court’s majority. There’s currently a 4-3 conservative majority, but with Chief Justice Patience Roggensack retiring, this will be the best chance liberals will have – perhaps at any point this decade – to win majority control and give another left-leaning justice a 10-year term. Winning that race would open the door to legal challenges to all kinds of things, including the state’s unfair maps. Milwaukee Circuit Court Judge Janet Claire Protasiewicz and Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell are both running from the left, and former justice Daniel Kelly, who was appointed to the court and then lost a bid for a full 10-year term in early 2020, is running from the right. Other candidates could emerge after the November election, as well.
But that race won’t be decided until April 2023, and there’s a chance Republicans could be coming into power next January with trifecta control of state government.
A Republican sweep in this election is very much in play. Ron Johnson is favored to win, Michels has a 50-50 shot, and Republicans could win the seats they need to reach a supermajority. There is a very realistic path for this outcome. A “red wave” could absolutely happen in Wisconsin.
Overall, though, the governor’s race in Wisconsin projects to be stupefyingly close. It really could go either way. If the polls are off the way they were in 2020, Michels will likely win. But if Evers maintains his slight edge with independents and women support the governor the way the polling suggests they will, he could win re-election.
As Marquette pollster Charles Franklin said presenting this final poll, “Polls don’t vote. People do.”
Go vote, people. The future of your state depends on it.
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.