By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Gov. Scott Walker is a game changer, in Wisconsin politics and possibly in the presidential election ahead, said national pollster Scott Rasmussen.
The founder and president of Rasmussen Reports, a conservative-leaning polling firm that, among a host of topics, takes the daily political temperature of the U.S. voter, said Walker’s ambitious and successful reform agenda and the Republican governor’s victory in last week’s recall election has helped changed the dynamic — and the math — in the presidential race.
At least in Wisconsin.
Rasmussen’s latest presidential tracking poll found GOP presumptive nominee Mitt Romney leading President Barack Obama by 3 percentage points, 47 percent to 43 percent, among respondents. The phone survey of 500 likely Wisconsin voters, conducted Tuesday, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Prior to this survey, Obama's support in the state tipped as high as 52 percent, while Romney’s support had topped at 45 percent. Last month, the numbers were 49 percent for Obama and 45 percent for Romney. In March, the president led his likely Republican challenger by 11 points, 52 percent to 41 percent.
“Sure there is the economy and the declining support overall for Obama, but you cannot ignore Scott Walker,” Rasmussen said during a Thursday webinar on the 2012 races sponsored by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, the parent nonprofit of Wisconsin Reporter, and Ballotpedia, a website on state politics.
Without Walker’s successful campaign to reform public-sector collective bargaining and his strong showing in Wisconsin’s heated, partisan recall election, Romney doesn't get the kind of lift he’s seeing, Rasmussen said.
“You’re probably talking about a state leaning Democrat, maybe closer than it was four years ago, but probably out of reach for Republicans,” the pollster said.
What a difference four years makes.
Obama won Wisconsin — now viewed as a purple state and battleground state — by 14 percentage points.
Neither the Obama campaign nor the Romney camp returned several calls and emails seeking comment.
What the recall race showed, Rasmussen said, is that in state politics, performance matters as does name recognition and political connectivity.
Generally, 20 percent of respondents polled have a strong opinion of a governor one way or another. Rasmussen polling found Walker tracked as high as 85 percent. Love him or hate him, Wisconsin voters know Walker.
Ultimately, those voters gave Walker a 7 percentage point win at the polls, a strong indication, Rasmussen said, that Wisconsinites were sold on Walker’s leadership. Several polls, including the Marquette Law School poll, showed a majority of respondents believe unionized public-sector employees should pay more for their benefits. Act 10, the law that stripped collective bargaining for most public employees, did just that.
“He has become the focal point of the debate,” Rasmussen said. “The reason Scott Walker won the recall election is he was able to talk about how much money people saved because of his reforms, and because his reforms led to decline in union membership.”
The reforms, in part allowing union members to opt out of paying dues, have deeply eroded the public-sector union base in Wisconsin. Unions are a core block of support for the Democratic Party.
Wisconsin Dems, smarting from stunning losses in last week's recall elections, have pointed to the record $31 million Walker’s campaign raised in fighting off the recall effort, seven times more than his challenger Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett raised.
“Thirty million dollars can buy an awful lot of lies and hate,” said Jane Witt, chairwoman of the Racine County Democratic Party.
The 21st Senate District, which includes all of the City of Racine, appears to be the Democrats only recall election win in a movement that targeted the governor, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four Republican Senate seats.
University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Charles Franklin, who heads up the Marquette Law School poll, said voters frustrated with the spate of recall elections in Wisconsin over the past year bolstered Walker’s numbers at the polls. But they may not have had as much to do with the victory as some have claimed, Franklin said.
Exit polls showed about 70 percent of recall voters didn’t like recalls, but Walker picked up 53 percent of the vote.
“That’s 17 percent who don’t like recalls but were willing to vote for Tom Barrett,” Franklin said. “It’s a convenient explanation for the outcome that exaggerates the role quite a bit.”
Franklin said exit polling confirms what many of the pre-election polls, including Marquette’s — which was spot on at a 7 percentage point advantage for Walker — indicated. A small majority of the state supported Walker, while a strong but minority opposition in the 45 percent range sought his ouster and voted for Barrett.
Franklin said he’s less confident, more “agnostic,” about what the recall election has to say about presidential politics. While Republican participation surged, Obama still held about an 8 percentage point lead among recall voters.
He said there’s more political movement on the national economy, with voters less optimistic about today's economic climate than they are on next year’s economy.