It’s not often that Wisconsin polling results surprise Charles Franklin. He’s been director of the Marquette Law School Poll since its inception in 2012 and co-founded Pollster.com amid his years of work as a professor of political science.
Yet he was startled by answers to a new question they began asking in the Marquette poll in January: They asked how registered voters view the Wisconsin Legislature, and the results came back with 52% approval (38% disapproval).
“It surprised me in January when we first asked that question, but this is the third time showing a decent net positive view of the legislature,” says Franklin. ‘Usually legislative bodies are not seen that favorably.”
To wit: In July, Congress got a 17% approval rating in a national Gallup poll. Congress hasn’t passed 30% approval in a decade. A poll in 2013, found Congress rated “less popular than cockroaches, traffic jams and even Nickelback.”
However, the results of August polling about state legislative leaders, released Wednesday, were less surprising. According to the poll, both state Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos were low on both positive and negative opinions. Vos had 15% favorable and 20% unfavorable with 65% not having an opinion — and he has been in the legislature since 2004. Fitzgerald had 19% favorable and 20% unfavorable with 61% of respondents having no opinion; he was first elected in 1994.
The public’s lack of familiarity with these two power brokers didn’t surprise Franklin at all. “For people who live in a political bubble, it’s hard to appreciate how people can be so little known, especially at the state level,” says Franklin. He points out that only roughly 1% of Wisconsinites get to vote in Vos’ race and 3% in Fitzgerald’s race as that is the segment of the state their districts represent. (There are 99 Assembly members and 33 Senators.)
“It’s not about them, it’s the structure of our government,” says Franklin. “They are elected from relatively small pieces of the state, yet once they are in power, they wield a huge deal of influence. Leadership has control of the agenda and can decide whether to put a bill on the agenda or not.”
Hours before the Marquette Poll was released on Wednesday, the Joint Finance Committee was meeting to re-approve funds for various state departments, including money designated to help farmers’ having mental health struggles and the minutia on merit pay increases in the Tourism department.
The meeting quickly disintegrated into bickering, accusations, attacks on each other’s motives and intelligence. Republican co-chairs turned off Democratic Rep. Chris Taylor’s microphone and there were lengthy fights over the politics of the manufacturing and agricultural tax credit.
It was jarring to go from that cantankerous display to seeing polling results that show the Wisconsin legislature has an approval rating above 50%.
That so little is known about the inner workings of state government and its leaders may also help explain some apparent disparities in the poll. For instance, the poll shows 80% support background checks for gun purchases and 74% support state funding for lead-pipe replacement, two measures that legislative leaders are against.
State Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee), who sits on the finance committee, had a guess as to why that’s the case. “People are busy with their everyday lives, so they are not paying attention.”
She found the battles at the meeting a distraction from what should be the jobs of both the committee members and the department secretaries who are being forced to come before JFC to ask for approval for funds that were already allocated to them in the budget. “I can think of a thousand better ways to spend our time rather than to fight just for the hell of it,” adds Johnson. “This is about the legislative body being sore losers about an election [for governor]. And in the end, it’s the taxpayers who are the real losers when we spend our time like this.”
Hiding from the voters
None of the legislative leaders, including Vos and Fitzgerald, responded to questions about their polling numbers. Vos did tweet a response to former Republican Rep. Adam Jarchow who said, “Also stunning that after years of leading state government and being in the news nearly every week, most people don’t know Fitz or Robin.”
Vos responded: “Actually I’m more than happy to be getting things done for conservatives and Racine County while making sure Gov Evers doesn’t screw up our state by enacting any of his very liberal agenda! #nocreditnecesssary”
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a former co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee when he was in the State Assembly, has another theory regarding residents’ lack of familiarity with legislative leaders. He says it is because they are never in session. And Republicans, he says, like it that way.
“This is my prediction — I would give 2 to 1 odds on this — that they will shrink seriously the calendar for what they have left of the session.” Pocan says it’s one way Republicans control things. A second way to avoid scrutiny is rushing through legislation that there is plenty of time to pass.
“The fewer days that they’re meeting and Democrats can raise issues the better it is for them,” he says. “But, of course, because of that, they’re not going to be addressing the farm crisis in Wisconsin, they’re not going to be addressing things like special-education funding, they’re not going to be addressing things like health care — Medicaid funding — and they’re not going to be addressing gun violence prevention. Until people start paying attention, nothing will change.”