Biden’s support in Wisconsin gets stronger as Trump’s backing sags

Newest Marquette Law School poll finds racial gaps underlie attitudes toward police and protests

Photo of Republican Democrat Undecided voting ad in station on turnstiles
Republican Democrat Undecided by edenpictures is licensed under the Creative Commons2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Wisconsin voters are giving former Vice President Joe Biden a growing lead over President Donald Trump in this year’s race for the White House. The respondents generally like the police — but they also express approval of the wave of protests over the last month targeting police brutality, and they view the Black Lives Matter movement positively.

And Gov. Tony Evers still enjoys the support of a majority for his handling of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, although that support has fallen from highs in months past.

But beneath those findings, drawn from the June edition of the Marquette Law School’s statewide poll, there remain sharp divisions — along party lines with respect to political figures, and along racial and ethnic lines when it comes to assessing the police and the protests directed at law enforcement.

Presidential politics

Biden has jumped to his largest lead yet in the Marquette poll, with support from 49% of Wisconsin registered voters to 43% for Trump. The two were tied at 46% in the February poll.

Among state voters in the poll 45% approve of the job Trump is doing as president, with 51% disapproving. Although his approval is down over the last six months, it’s a relatively modest decline from 48% in January through March and 47% in May, observed the poll’s director, Marquette Law School professor Charles Franklin.

“You have to go back to August of 2019 to find a poll where he was as low as 45% in our recent polling,” Franklin said in a video conversation with Mike Gousha, a distinguished fellow in law and public policy at the law school and a former broadcast journalist.

Biden has drawn strength from three different groups of voters, the poll results show: Democrats who are solidifying behind him as the party’s presumptive nominee for the presidency; independent voters who have swung to Biden; and softening support for Trump within his own party.

Joe Biden during a virtual roundtable discussion on rural issues (screenshot).
Joe Biden during a virtual roundtable discussion on rural issues (screenshot).

In the June poll, 97% of Democrats interviewed supported Biden, up from 93% in the May poll. Independent voters who aren’t classified as leaning to either party favored Biden over Trump by 38% to 30%, a shift from May when they backed Trump by 34% to 27%.

“This is not a big part of the electorate,” Franklin said. “Pure independents are less than 10% of registered voters. But they’re also the group that can shift the most, and I think the shifts from last month to this show that they have moved in the same direction that we’ve seen in national polling.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s support within his own Republican party has slipped from 93% in the May poll to 83% in the June poll, while 8% of self-identified GOP voters said they supported Biden.

“That’s a bit of a dip among his core supporters,” said Franklin. “One month doesn’t necessarily mean it will stay that way. But since we’ve been used to seeing his support among Republicans above 90%, it’s notable this month that it drops below 90 for the first time in a while.”

Besides stronger support in Democratic party strongholds Milwaukee and Madison, Biden also gained on Trump to a statistical tie in the Fox Valley region that encompasses Green Bay and Appleton, with support from 45% of respondents there compared to 44% for Trump — a marked shift from Trump’s 57-37 advantage in May.

Dissecting the results along party lines shows continued partisan divisions, however.

President Donald Trump giving two thumbs up
President of the United States Donald Trump speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo by Gage Skidmore /Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

Trump’s approval comes almost solely from Republicans surveyed, 87% of whom approve of Trump, and Republican-leading independents, 85% of whom approve of the president. Meanwhile fully 95% of Democrats and 90% of Democratic-leaning independents in the poll disapprove of Trump.

Voters who Franklin calls the “pure independents,” because they don’t lean habitually to either party, flipped from 50% approval and 36% disapproval in May to 57% disapproval and 36% approval in the June poll.

In an assessment of perceived empathy, Trump is “substantially under water,” with 39% of those polled saying he cares about people like them, against 57% who said he does not. On that question, 46% of those polled said Biden cares about them, while 42% said he does not.

“That’s not necessarily the only thing that matters in elections,” Franklin said, “but it’s a potential strength for Biden and a weakness for Trump — especially if we see this continue throughout the summer and into the fall.”

Police, protests and race

Outside of Campaign 2020, the June poll dug into a new arena, delving into public attitudes surrounding the protests — mostly peaceful, but some punctuated by violence — that have swept the country and the state since the May 25 killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis who has since been arrested and charged with murder.

Those questions especially showed two starkly different viewpoints about the police and about racial conditions in the United States, said Franklin.

“The striking thing here is how different perceptions are across groups,” he added. 

In the overall sample of voters in the poll, 86% said they felt “mostly safe” around police, while 11% reported feeling anxious.

“But among African Americans, it’s only 43% who say they feel safe, and 44%  who feel anxious,” Franklin said. “Among Hispanics, 72% feel safe, but 28% feel anxious.”

By comparison, more than 90% of white respondents in the poll said that they “feel comfortable with the police.”

Madison Police Protest
Organizer M. Adams speaks to the crowd as protesters hold the intersection of John Nolen and North Shore Drives in Madison earlier in June. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

“That’s a striking point,” Franklin continued, “and it pervades these data: that African Americans, and to a substantial extent, Hispanics, have different experiences with the police” than white people do, “and have very different perspectives on the police use of violence and the comfort you feel around them.”

They also differ sharply over how serious prejudice is against Black people.

Among white people surveyed, 37% called anti-Black prejudice “very serious” and another 39% called it “somewhat serious,” while 21% called it “not so serious” or “not a problem at all.”

But among Black people, 88% called it “very serious,” 7% “somewhat serious,” and only 5% said it is either not serious or no problem. Hispanic people in the poll fell in between the other two groups, with 66% calling prejudice against Black people a “very serious problem,” 18% “somewhat serious,” and 12% “not so serious.” (Of the Hispanic respondents, none said prejudice was not a problem).

Related questions in the poll found similar divisions:

  • Although 76% of white people in the survey viewed police favorably,  just 39% of Black people had that view, while 49% viewed police unfavorably. Among Hispanic people, 50% were favorable and 38% unfavorable.
  • Majorities of all three groups viewed the protests following Floyd’s death with approval, but that assessment ranged from 59% of white people to 74% of Black people and 81% of Hispanic people in the poll.
  • Similarly, the Black Lives Matter movement was viewed favorably by 57% of white people, compared with 73% of Hispanic people and 81% of Black people.
  • Asked whether police are too willing to use deadly force, 54% of white people answered they were not, while 38% said they were. But 71% of Hispanic people and 68% of Black people agreed that police are too willing to use deadly force.
  • Responding to whether recent police killings of Black people reflected a larger pattern of police treatment of Black Americans, 47% of whites disagreed, saying they were isolated incidents, while 44% saw them as part of a broader pattern. But 72% of Hispanic people and 86% of Black people in the poll answered that those killings represented a broader pattern of how police treat people of color.

“We’ve seen the national data turn up into the 60s and even low 70s saying this is a broader pattern,” Franklin said. “So, in this, Wisconsin has been a little slower to catch up to the pretty rapidly changing opinion at the national level.”

Questions about reforming public safety produced sharply different responses depending on the wording. “Calls to restructure the role of the police and require greater accountability for police misconduct” drew support from 83% of Black people polled and 80% of white people, along with 97% of Hispanic people.

By contrast, “calls to defund the police” had support 57% of Hispanic people surveyed and 45% of Blacks people surveyed, but just 20% of whites.

COVID-19 and government response

The Marquette June poll also has found that the public continues to support Evers’ handling of the crisis brought on by the spread of the novel coronavirus responsible for the disease known as COVID-19, although support has declined some. In the June survey, 58% of respondents approved of the job the governor has done on the issue, while 37% disapproved.

Gousha and Franklin
Mike Gousha, left, interviews Charles Franklin, right, about the results of the June 2020 Marquette Law School poll released Wednesday. Franklin directs the poll. (Screenshot from YouTube.)

“That’s a substantial approval, but it’s not the stratospheric approval we saw at the beginning of the COVID crisis,” Franklin said, when Evers got backing from more than 70% of the public for his response to the virus.

Even as that may be diminishing, however, the actions the Evers administration took at the start of the pandemic continue to show broad approval. Beginning in March, a series of orders ratcheted down gatherings of people, culminating in the Safer at Home order that took effect March 25. Residents were instructed to minimize travel and many businesses had to shut down temporarily, sending unemployment surging to record levels. The state Supreme Court, in a 4-3 ruling, threw out the Safer at Home order on May 13 after it was extended.

“There’s still strong support even in retrospect” for the Evers administration’s actions, said Franklin. Among respondents to the June poll, “72% say closing was the right thing to do,” he continued. “Just 25% say it was an overreaction.”

At the same time, the poll found that fears of contracting COVID-19 have steadily diminished since March, when 30% of people were “very worried” and another 40% “somewhat worried” about that prospect. The June poll found the proportion of those who were “very worried” had shrunk to 19% and “somewhat worried” to 36%.

The Marquette poll of Wisconsin residents was conducted by telephone Sunday, June 14, through Thursday, June 18. The sample included 805 people, 65% of whom were reached by cell phone and the rest by land lines, and the margin of error was 4.3 percentage points, Franklin said.