With less than two months until Election Day, races in Wisconsin for governor and U.S. Senate are neck and neck, despite voters’ apparent displeasure with the candidates running in the state’s most high-profile races.
That’s according to a new Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday.
Among likely voters, incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers led his Republican challenger, Tim Michels, 47% to 43%. In the race for U.S. Senate, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson roared back from a significant deficit last month to lead Barnes 49% to 48% in the poll released Wednesday.
It’s an “utterly predictable tightening of the races,” said poll director Charles Franklin.
The poll was conducted Sept. 6 to Sept. 11 and interviewed 801 registered Wisconsin voters. It had a margin of error of +/- 4.3 percentage points among registered voters and 4.9 percentage points among likely voters.
But despite voters pledging support to candidates, they appear rather unhappy with their choices, according to Franklin.
“We might see everybody be seen net negatively by Election Day,” he said, highlighting the grumpy nature of Wisconsin voters — 53% of whom said the state is “on the wrong track.”
Noteworthy trends in governor’s race
While the Senate race saw a dramatic swing over the last month, the margins in the governor’s race have remained largely unchanged since Marquette’s first poll following the Aug. 9 primary. Last month, Evers led Michels 48% to 44%.
Around this time in 2018, Evers led Republican former Gov. Scott Walker 49% to 44%. Evers defeated Walker by just a hair over one percentage point.
But while Evers’ lead shrank over the last month, it wasn’t all good news for Michels. In last month’s poll, 33% of those polled had a favorable view of him while 33% had an unfavorable view. Almost a quarter of respondents said they hadn’t heard enough about him to form an opinion.
This month, Michels’ favorability rating ticked up slightly to 34%. But while 6% more voters now know enough about the construction magnate to form an opinion of him, they largely broke against him, raising his unfavorability rating to 39%.
Evers also led Michels in a new question: 47% of likely voters said they believe Evers better understands the problems of ordinary people, while 41% said Michels does. Michels’ wealth and homes in multiple states have been the subject of numerous barbs from Evers and his former Republican opponents during the primary.
The poll also highlighted shortcomings for Evers, despite his lead. Asked about the governor’s response to the protests, riots and civil unrest following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha — an issue Michels and Republicans have hammered — 47% said they disapproved of how Evers handled the situation, while 38% approved.
“This is a weakness for Evers, in our data at least,” Franklin said.
For only the second time since taking office, Wednesday’s poll found the governor with a net negative job approval rating. Among those polled, 44% approved of Evers’ work as governor and 47% disapproved of the job he is doing.
Franklin said voters who identify as independent fueled the negative rating, with only 42% of independents approving of the job Evers has done and 48% disapproving of his work.
“That's an important group for the election and seeing them turn net negative towards Evers’ job performance is a warning signal for the Evers campaign,” Franklin said.
Michels campaign manager Patrick McNulty said the campaign has seen “a meteoric rise in support in five months.”
“As more people pay attention to the race and Tim continues to talk about the issues that matter most, they realize the tired, old failures of Tony Evers have Wisconsin on the wrong track,” McNulty said.
Evers spokesperson Kayla Anderson said the poll “shows what we’ve known all along — this will be one of the most competitive races in the country and we aren’t taking anything for granted.”
“Gov. Evers has spent the last four years bringing people together to get things done and delivering for working families — and he is ready for what’s ahead," Anderson said.
Noteworthy trends in U.S. Senate race
Johnson’s spike can largely be attributed to movement among independent voters, who favored Barnes by 15 points in August. The incumbent senator now has a two-point lead among independents.
Franklin noted that last month, 41% of voters didn’t have an opinion on Barnes, who had just won a crowded Democratic primary election.
“That 41% that aren’t familiar with him are ripe for the campaigns to have an effect, and his campaign could win them over,” Franklin said. “Conversely, the Johnson campaign could make people have a more negative view of him.”
In the most recent poll, 34% of voters said they didn’t have an opinion on Barnes. Since August, Barnes’ favorability has gone from 37% to 31%, while his unfavorability has risen from 22% to 32%.
That swing comes after a barrage of negative ads from Johnson and his allies, seeking to tie the lieutenant governor to far-left politicians and movements. Barnes had largely avoided criticism from his own party throughout the primary election.
“We'll make the next two months awful for him as we continue to expose the truth about him to Wisconsin voters," said Ben Voelkel, a senior adviser for the Johnson campaign.
Johnson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after the poll’s release that he will run the campaign as “a dead-even race.”
The Barnes campaign brushed off the poll results, arguing that voters will prefer “a leader like Mandela Barnes who shares their working class values” over “an out-of-touch politician like Ron Johnson.”
“Polls will go up and down, but our campaign remains focused on reaching every voter we need to win, and Mandela will continue to bring his message of fighting for the middle class to every corner of Wisconsin,” said Barnes spokesperson Maddy McDaniel.
Around this time in 2016, Johnson trailed Democratic former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, whom he unseated in 2010, 41% to 47%. Johnson defeated Feingold by 3.4 percentage points, benefiting from a swing among independent voters (he flipped a seven-point deficit in October to a six-point lead in November).
Inflation still a top concern
Inflation remained at the top of the list of voters’ concerns, with 70% very concerned about it. That was followed by crime at 61%, accurate vote count and public schools, each at 56%, gun violence at 55%, and abortion policy at 53%.
The partisan breakdown on voters’ most significant election issues showed stark differences in priorities.
Republicans’ top five issues were inflation, accurate vote count, taxes, crime and illegal immigration. For Democrats, they were gun violence, abortion policy, climate change, public schools and crime.
Marquette is slated to release two more polls ahead of the Nov. 8 general election.