Who do voters in Wisconsin — or Pennsylvania or Michigan — want for president? 

By: - March 1, 2020 8:01 pm
Democratic presidential candidates (L-R) former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) participate in the Democratic presidential primary debate on Feb. 19, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Democratic presidential candidates (L-R) former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) participate in the Democratic presidential primary debate on Feb. 19, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In a week with a rise in confirmed cases of coronavirus and a sharp drop in the stock market, along with a tragic mass shooting at the Molson Coors brewery in Milwaukee, the fact that Sen. Bernie Sanders is leading by a solid margin in Wisconsin — a state he won in the 2016 primary — was not huge news. 

The Marquette poll from Feb. 2020 shows a huge uptick of support for Bernie Sanders. (Marquette wire)
The Marquette poll from Feb. 2020 shows a huge uptick of support for Bernie Sanders. (Marquette wire)

But whether or not voters are thinking about the state’s April 7 presidential primary, the Marquette Law Poll dutifully released its monthly report on Thursday.

It was the third recent poll in Wisconsin over the past week, joining one by Quinnipiac University focused on battleground states and a new poll put out by the UW-Madison Elections Research Center on Sunday.

“With these three different polls, you can pick the one that makes you feel good,” quipped Marquette pollster director Charles Franklin giving the audience at the poll unveiling a double thumbs up sign. “I strongly encourage it — just be happy with one of them.”

Mike Gousha and Charles Franklin in On the Issues present the Feb. 2020 Marquette Poll results
Mike Gousha and Charles Franklin in On the Issues present the Feb. 2020 Marquette Poll results (via Marquette wire)

The Marquette Poll was conducted Feb. 19 – 23, beginning the night of the Nevada debate, however most interviews were done after the debate, but before the results came in from the Nevada caucuses, with only 12%  taking place after the results were known. All Marquette’s interviews were done before last Saturday’s South Carolina primary. 

“Nothing that happened this week plays any role in our numbers,” said Franklin on Thursday.  He added, “It is great, actually to have all three polls, in all seriousness to have multiple ways of looking because you see how much variation there is across  them.” 

Indeed, there were differences between the three polls, particularly on how candidates fare against President Donald Trump. That question resulted in differing answers coming from Wisconsinites in each of the three polls.

Marquette Poll

Franklin noted that of his six polls conducted since last August, February is the first time Sanders has held the top spot (29% support), with previous frontrunner Vice President Joe Biden sliding to third (15%). Former Mayor Mike Bloomberg — who is spending barrels of cash in Wisconsin — moved to second place (17%) just above Biden.

Here is the head-to-head scenario in the Marquette poll:

  • Trump ties Sen. Amy Klobuchar 46 – 46%;
  • Trump beats Sen. Elizabeth Warren 47 – 44%;
  • Trump ties former Mayor Pete Buttigieg 45 – 45%;
  • Trump leads former Mayor Michael Bloomberg 45 – 44%;
  • Trump loses to Sen. Bernie Sanders 46 – 48%;
  • Trump ties Vice President Joe Biden 46 – 46%.

Quinnipiac Poll

Among registered voters in Wisconsin, President Trump leads the Democratic candidates by between 7 and 11 percentage points in head-to-head election matchups:

  • Trump tops Sen. Amy Klobuchar 50 – 39%;
  • Trump leads Sen. Elizabeth Warren 51 – 41%;
  • Trump beats former Mayor Pete Buttigieg 49 – 41%;
  • Trump tops former Mayor Michael Bloomberg 49 – 41%;
  • Trump defeats Sen. Bernie Sanders 50 – 43%;
  • Trump is ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden 49 – 42%.

In Michigan and Pennsylvania, the president was viewed negatively by more than half of registered voters surveyed. (The matchups from Pennsylvania and Michigan can be found here.) Mary Snow, Quinnipiac University polling analyst, flagged Wisconsin numbers as problematic for Democrats:

Wisconsin voters give [Trump] a job approval rating above 50%, higher than what he receives nationally and in Pennsylvania and Michigan. These Wisconsin numbers are a red warning sign for Democrats that rebuilding the ‘blue wall’ in 2020 may not be so easy. But it’s a long way to November.”

Snow added, “Between President Trump and the Democratic presidential candidates, voters aren’t showing much enthusiasm about any candidate. Getting a split favorability rating is the high water mark.”

UW Elections Research Center

This new poll showed that all Democratic candidates are “competitive with Trump” in all three “battleground states.” 

“The survey reveals that Sen. Bernie Sanders is the leading candidate in the primary contest with a sizable lead in Michigan and Wisconsin but a narrower lead in Pennsylvania,” its website stated.

And here is where this poll showed different results from the other two polls: “In the general election, all leading Democratic candidates either slightly lead or are tied with Trump in head-to-head matchups.” However the group pointed out that it is within the margin of error, adding,  “The results of the head-to-head matchups between Democratic candidates and Trump are straightforward: None of these states will be easily won by either party.”

  • Trump is behind vs. Sen. Amy Klobuchar 43 – 44%;
  • Trump is beaten by Sen. Elizabeth Warren 44 – 46%;
  • Trump loses to former Mayor Pete Buttigieg 43 – 45%;
  • Trump versus former Mayor Michael Bloomberg (no data);
  • Trump loses to Sen. Bernie Sanders 44 – 46%;
  • Trump is behind former Vice President Joe Biden 43 – 45%.

“Sanders is well positioned to pick up the lion’s share of delegates in all these states unless another Democrat breaks away from the pack to challenge him,” said Barry Burden, UW-Madison political science professor and director of the ERC. “All three states are up for grabs in 2020. Trump is in a more difficult position in Michigan than the other two states, but each of the Midwest battlegrounds could be won by either party, almost regardless of who becomes the Democratic nominee.” 

The ERC analysis showed a distinct difference in candidate preferences on the Democratic side when it is broken down by age.

“Following patterns in other parts of the country, the starkest divide among Democrats is by age,” reads the report. “Sanders is the pick of a majority of those under 30 years old, but only one out of 10 voters from those 65 or older. Older Democratic primary voters are more divided in their choices but generally find Biden and Bloomberg most appealing.”

The Marquette Poll showed a big increase in approval for Sanders among younger voters ages 18 -29 from 45% last month to 68% this month. 

It’s the economy, stupid (and winning)

One constant Snow found was that voters ranked their  top issue as the economy (31%), followed by health care (27%) and climate change (12%). The issues were rated similarly in the other two swing states. Not surprisingly when broken down by party voters citing health care or climate change were Democrats, and most people citing the economy as the number one issue backed Trump.

Of course these polls were in the field before the biggest weekly drop in the stock market since 2008.

“People are pretty positive about the economy,” said Franklin looking at his poll, which surveyed people looking back and projecting forward.

“Check that number next month.  All before coronavirus, supply chain issues and the market, so pay attention to this one,” he suggested. “If it stays really positive like it has been, it’s one of the real supports for him.”

Franklin finds another non-issue factor that matters strongly to Democrats: electibility. He said it helps explain why even when Democrats are not positive about a candidate other than their first choice, they still keep pace with Trump.  Bloomberg, for example, has the worst net-negative rating among voters at 51% with just 22% approval. 

“Republicans don’t care for him, but look at how divided the Democrats are about him — even though he finishes second in the primary choice. It’s back to that issue of electability,” said Franklin. “It’s ‘I think he’d be a strong candidate, I don’t really like him that much, but electability matters.’ This is sort of confounding things.”

Ranking the pollsters

FiveThirtyEight — the statistical/analytical brainchild of Nate Silver — has gathered data from all of the above polls, and many others. And it also ranks the pollsters based on historical accuracy, methodology and statistical bias. Of the three above polling outlets, Marquette gets the highest grade with an A/B. Quinnipiac University comes in second with a B+ and YouGov, which did its work on this poll under the direction of the ERC, gets a B-. All respectable grades compared with a number of firms that got grades of D or F.

The Marquette poll ramps up the number of people it surveys as elections get closer, so the February poll sampled 1,000 people rather than the usual 800, noted Franklin. That, in turn, lowers the margin of error. In the case of this poll to +/- 3.6%.

Marquette University Law Poll logo
Marquette University Law Poll logo

He adds that when the Marquette Poll comes out in late March, there will have been many primaries, including Super Tuesday, and “we should have a much better sense of whether people are clinging to a choice other than the front runner. Or whether the front runner, whoever that is, has sealed the deal. And we’ll also see if there’s any new unification in the party as far as liking these folks.”

The numbers also show that Democrats — even with the rough and tumble debates — appear ready to unify against Trump.

“Whatever their differences are about Elizabeth Warren versus Joe Biden, the difference between either of those Democrats and Donald Trump, is crystal clear for Democrats,” Franklin said. “And it’s crystal clear for Republicans, at least in the most partisan ends of the spectrum.”

“I think this will be a rich year for seeing and comparing polls,” Franklin concluded noting that Fox has polled twice in Wisconsin already and the New York Times has polled here once. “And if your mental health needs it, just pick one. So long as it’s ours.”

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Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin was the Wisconsin Examiner's founding Deputy Editor, serving from its launch July 1, 2019, until Feb. 1, 2022. She is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications before returning to journalism at the Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.