Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has had more tough campaigns than most sitting elected officials. And in a new poll from Marquette University Law School, it's becoming increasingly apparent that he'll have another tough campaign in 2014: He's essentially tied with his Democratic challenger.
Or perhaps more accurately, he's essentially tied with an entity known as "Democratic Challenger." Mary Burke, the businesswoman and school board member who is challenging Walker, is still widely unknown, meaning that while the polling in the race continues to tighten, that's largely a reflection of Walker, not the campaign itself.
We spoke by phone with Marquette's Charles Franklin, who walked us through the numbers. The top line is that Walker leads Burke 46 to 45 among registered voters -- but Burke leads Walker by one point among voters most likely to vote. As you might expect of a governor who escaped a recall attempt a few years ago, opinions are heavily split on party lines -- the "partisan camps are solidly anchored," in Franklin's formulation.
Over the past three polls that Marquette has conducted, you see Walker's favorability -- which in the most recent survey was slightly negative -- sliding among Republicans, Democrats and independents. But notice that Walker's favorability is still far higher than Burke's.
That's because just under half of voters don't know enough about Burke to make up their minds on how they feel about her -- as has been the case for months.
Franklin points out that this phenomenon is in part because the campaign is just getting underway. As both sides run ads, "that will drive up Burke's recognition very rapidly," he said. The question then is, "Who's responsible for that? Is she driving that up, in which case it's more likely to be positive." If, however, Walker is raising awareness of Burke, it's likely to be more negative -- and her favorability wouldn't get much better.
Franklin also pointed out that Walker's numbers with independent voters have slipped, even in the absence of an active campaign. (You can see it in the down-tick between May and July. Independents favored Walker by 9 percentage points two months ago; now, by only 1.) In part, Franklin said, that's because the state's job numbers have "remained in the doldrums," and there's been some "not great" revenue news -- the sorts of things that might help explain why Walker's job approval numbers are headed down after an upward blip in May.
If you're wondering about the recent reports surrounding accusations that Walker's senior staff was involved in campaign finance misbehavior, Marquette asked about that, too. By a ten point margin, a plurality of voters think that the accusations are "just more politics." Franklin thinks that Walker defenders have been effective in offering that message; "This is a case," he said, "where, when political figures are saying that this is a politically motivated investigation, it gives their partisans a lead in what they should think about it."
So, in short, yes, Walker is tied with Burke. But at this point, the worst charge that Democrats could throw at Walker doesn't seem to be sticking. And Walker and Republicans have barely thrown anything at Burke at all. Yet.