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Wisconsin Cautious About Obama Health Care Plan; Milwaukee Poised for Reform; 2010 Elections, and the Economy

October 5, 2009

WPRI Survey of Public Opinion
WPRI poll covers economy, state’s direction, 2010 election, Obama health care plan, and school reform efforts in Milwaukee.

MADISON – Tom Barrett and Scott Walker have the early edge in hypothetical primary matchups in the 2010 governor’s race, according to a new poll in which Wisconsinites also give high levels of support to President Obama but express concern over the direction of state government.

The survey of 700 randomly selected Wisconsin adults was conducted by phone with live interviewers from Sept. 27-29.  It was directed by Ken Goldstein, a UW-Madison political science professor, and the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (www.wpri.org).

The majority of Wisconsin residents surveyed are concerned about the economy and unhappy with the direction of the country as a whole although, by a 2-1 margin, they expect things to get better over the next year, according to the poll.

“It’s been a tough year and a majority of people think the state and the country are on the wrong track,” Goldstein says. “But Wisconsin residents are showing some cautious optimism on the economy.”

Fifty-seven percent of Wisconsinites still approve of Obama’s job performance while 43 percent approve of Gov. Jim Doyle’s performance. Levels of trust in state government in general are considerably lower.

“We continue to see a lack of confidence in state government,” says George Lightbourn, president of WPRI. “Only twenty-nine percent think they can trust state government to do the right thing most of the time. Forty-six percent think that, in the last year, state government has made the economic situation worse.”

Early on in the race to replace Doyle as governor, the main contenders – Barrett, Walker, Barbara Lawton and Mark Neumann – are still unknown by half of Wisconsinites.  Among Democrats, more have a favorable view of Barrett (41 percent) than Lawton (30 percent); more Republicans have a favorable view of Walker (45 percent) than Neumann (33 percent).

In a hypothetical matchup, if the Democratic gubernatorial primary were held today, 38 percent would vote for Barrett, even though the Milwaukee mayor and former U.S. congressman has not said if he is running. Lawton, the sitting lieutenant governor who has declared her candidacy, would get 16 percent.

If the GOP gubernatorial primary were held today, 39 percent would vote for Walker, the Milwaukee County executive. Neumann, a former U.S. congressman, would get 14 percent.

The poll also asked about political affiliation. More Wisconsinites identify with Democrats than Republicans, but the Democrats’ large advantage in party identification among Wisconsin residents has decreased some since the 2008 presidential election. Still, the number of people identifying themselves as Republicans has not changed in that time.

“The Democratic brand has taken some hits. That said, it doesn’t translate yet to an improvement on the Republican side,” Goldstein says.

Republicans think both Obama and Doyle are doing a poor job, but Obama still has very strong support among Democrats and solid support among independents. Doyle, who announced earlier this year he would not seek a third term, has low approval ratings from independents and less solid support from his own party.

More Wisconsinites oppose President Barack Obama’s health care plan than support it, according to the poll. More than one-third of state residents mostly oppose the president’s proposed changes to the health care system while 28 percent mostly support them. More than 35 percent said they still don’t know enough to respond, the poll found.

The survey also found nearly half of Wisconsin residents said reducing costs is the single biggest problem that needs to be solved by health care reform, while 26 percent said covering all Americans, and 16 percent said increasing quality. Only 2 percent said the health care system is fine as it is.

“President Obama enjoys higher-than-national-average job approval numbers in Wisconsin, but it has not translated into support for the general outlines of his health care reform,” Goldstein says. “Even after many months of talk and debate, 35 percent of Wisconsinites are still undecided and in play in the health care reform debate.”

The survey found that most state residents are satisfied with the quality of their local public schools. Over 58 percent give them a grade of “B” or higher, while less than 6 percent give them an “F.” Residents of Milwaukee County are much more critical of their own public schools; only 35 percent give their local schools an “A” or “B” and almost one-fourth give their local schools an “F.”

School choice remains popular in Milwaukee, with 55 percent of Milwaukee County respondents supporting vouchers for low-income families and 34 percent opposing them.

And a majority of Milwaukee County residents (53 percent) are in favor of giving the mayor of Milwaukee control of the city’s public schools, including the power to choose the next superintendent and appoint school board members. Almost one-third of Milwaukee County residents oppose the idea.

“We are seeing that Milwaukee is ready for dramatic change in its schools,” says Lightbourn. “A quarter of the people we asked gave their schools an ‘F’ for failure. Yet significant margins support the most vigorous school choice in America and now support the mayoral takeover of the public schools. Milwaukee seems ripe for education reform.”

Among the poll’s other results:

-Forty-two percent of respondents or their families have been directly affected by the recession through a job loss, a reduction in hours, a furlough or home foreclosure. Nearly one-fourth said they or someone in their family had lost a job in the past year.

-Among those aged 18-35, 8 percent get their news from newspapers and 40 percent from the Internet. Among those 65 and over, 60 percent rely on the papers and 2 percent on the Internet.

-If an election for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin were held today and both Tommy Thompson and Russ Feingold were on the ballot, the former governor would defeat the incumbent by four percentage points, 43% to 39%.

"Tommy Thompson is still the state's most popular Republican, eight years after leaving the governor's mansion and 11 years after last appearing on the ballot, and a race between these two major figures would clearly be competitive and draw national attention,” Goldstein says.  “That said, the undecided voters in this race look more like Feingold voters and Thompson would be re-evaluated by Wisconsin voters in more of a political light if he re-entered the political arena."

The poll has a margin of error of 3.8 percentage points. The margin of error will be higher for sub-group analysis. The sample of Wisconsin adults was selected by random digit dialing (RDD) of landline phones; cell-only households were not included.

Detailed poll results on these issues can be found at www.wpri.org. More poll results will be available in the coming days.

WPRI – a nonpartisan, not-for-profit think tank – has been conducting independent, annual polls on politics and issues for more than 20 years. Working with Goldstein, the institute will survey state residents every four months. The partnership’s next poll will be conducted in the spring.

Goldstein is also director of the Wisconsin Advertising Project at UW-Madison. Known for his non-partisan, unbiased research, Goldstein has worked on national network election night coverage in every U.S. federal election since 1988, and is currently a consultant for the ABC News elections unit. During the 2008 presidential election, he was also the co-founder and director of the Big Ten Battleground Poll.


For Summaries of the Results (Toplines), Click Here.

For Full Poll Results (Banners), Click Here.

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