The dispute in Wisconsin about collective bargaining and union power isn’t “over”; it’s just begun.
The recent fight has cost Republicans support, strengthened unions, polarized the issue, and swung critical independents, who were essential to the Republicans’ 2010 electoral victory, toward sympathizing with the unions.
Indeed, in Wisconsin, Republicans now face a state Supreme Court election in less than two weeks as well as eight legislative recall elections this spring and summer. Defeat would turn over control of both entities to government union supporters. As it stands now, Republicans could not only lose, but lose badly. And if they lose, the political repercussions for other states (like Ohio) that are also taking on government unions are enormous.
Independent Women’s Voice retained The Polling Company to conduct a statewide survey of 400 frequent voters in Wisconsin on March 13-14, followed by an in-depth focus group on March 16 to assess if the traditional red-state messaging being used was backfiring with critical independents in traditionally blue-state Wisconsin, as well as if other messaging approaches had more resonance.
Gov. Walker and others have assured colleagues that support will grow for their efforts as the immediate controversy fades from memory. As Pat Caddell pointed out, that’s eerily reminiscent of predictions made by President Obama and the Democrats about health care reform a year ago. Walker may be right, but the current facts point otherwise for the near term.
An astonishing 95% of the survey respondents described themselves as paying close attention to the issue, 71% saying “very” closely. Respondents strongly identified with one or the other side of the budget conflict, and this identification fell along ideological lines. Independents now largely lock arms with the union members and protestors.
As a result, Gov. Walker is now viewed unfavorably by a 53% majority, and with vehemence: only 3% say “somewhat” unfavorable while 50% say “very.” In contrast, the “Gang of 14,” the 14 Democratic state senators who fled to Illinois, were viewed favorably by a majority of respondents, 51% to 47%, even though a majority thought it was wrong of them to run away. The real winner? Government employee unions in Wisconsin, scoring 55% favorable and only 40% unfavorable.
The numbers about recalling legislators should also worry Republicans. Asked if they support or oppose recalling the Gang of 14 Democratic state senators, 60% overall oppose recalling them, with 38% supporting recall. But when it comes to recalling the Republican state senators who remained in Wisconsin, a much more tepid 52% oppose their recall, while 43% support it.
Turnout is key in any election, but especially in special elections. And unions excel at turnout: While union members constitute only 14% of Wisconsin’s population, in recent elections union households have cast between 26% and 30% of the votes.
Union households support recalling Republicans over Democrats by a 2:1 margin. Additionally, self-described independents now side with the unions and protestors over the governor 54% to 43%, and are overall favorably disposed (62%) to Wisconsin’s government employee unions. And if it came to a recall for Scott Walker, independents favor it 51% to 47%, the near inverse of the population as a whole, who oppose, but only barely, his recall, 50%-49%.
What did Wisconsinites react to? First, while those who sided with the governor cited as primary reasons fiscal responsibility (32%) and disagreeing with the present benefits system (24%), those who sided with the unions and protestors by a large margin first and foremost (38%) opposed Gov. Walker himself. (“Protect collective bargaining for government worker unions” trailed at a mere 18%.) Walker’s approach was described by this cohort as “dictatorial” and “radical.” Indeed the entire issue has become intensely polarized and politically charged, which has worked to the advantage of the unions.
We tested whether three pro-Walker/anti-union ads that ran in Wisconsin reinforced this polarization. These ads focused more on personalities and political sides than on facts and issues. None of the clips were seen as particularly influential and drew mostly critical or dismissive comments, mainly because they included the controversial “players” in this unfolding drama. These ads may have appealed to donors and supporters, but in Wisconsin they added to the unfortunate effect of moving this from a right-wrong fight to a right-left fight.
Our research revealed that Wisconsin voters lacked important, basic facts about the current situation, such as the five-fold disparity in health care contributions between Wisconsin state employees and the national average. Even those respondents who supported Governor Walker wrongly believed that government worker benefits are lower than that of private union workers.
Wisconsin voters revealed basic misunderstandings on numerous issues, including how much government union members and taxpayers have been contributing to union pensions, what the fiscal situation in Wisconsin is, how collective bargaining is, or isn’t, done elsewhere, and how dues are collected and used. Building an understanding of these fundamental policy issues is key to building support for reform.
The current instinct in Republican and conservative circles is to use partisan, sledgehammer ads and talk to the converted. This is a limited strategy overall, but in an until-recently blue state like Wisconsin, it’s no way to win. There is still a chance to turn this debate around — the question is: Will Republican supporters be willing to use a new playbook?
Heather Richardson Higgins is president and CEO of Independent Women’s Voice.