Conservative “think-tank” Wisconsin Policy Research Institute releases new poll, and puts itself in spin mode

Let the spin begin. The WPRI October poll released by the conservative think-tank Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI) is bad news for Scott Walker and the Republicans, and gives recall supporters a clear indication of issues that resonate with voters. But you wouldn’t know it by reading the headline, sub-headline, or the October 30 article itself in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MJS) online today. The headline of the article – “Gloom Lessens on economy, poll shows“, is followed by “Poll also shows fewer think state is on the wrong track.” Stopping there, as most casual readers do, one would think the recall effort is finished, and the Republicans have succeeded in turning the tide of public opinion. That is exactly what WPRI  wants you to think the poll shows – and exactly why digging deeper into the poll is so important. Something the Journal Sentinel won’t do – but Badger Democracy will.

The MJS report literally “cherry picks” poll results that, at face value, could be considered positive for Scott Walker and the Republicans in the Legislature. Out of over 30 responses given, the article highlights just a few select responses – public perception of Wisconsin’s economic future, attitude about the potential Walker recall, perception of President Obama and National political policies, attitude about Occupy Wall Street versus Tea Party, and perception of Public School performance. The tone of the article would imply that the anger and passion from early spring has waned, and the majority of people are ready to move on. What the MJS, and to a great extent, the WPRI press release on its own poll fails to report, is the bad news for Republicans – and who WPRI is.

WPRI publicizes itself as “non-partisan.” They are not non-partisan, any more than Americans for Prosperity is non-partisan. WPRI was founded in 1987, and is now based in Hartland, WI – Waukesha County. The group believes that “competitive free markets, limited government, private initiative, and personal responsibility are essential to our democratic way of life.”  WPRI funds conservative-friendly research, blogs, radio podcasts, and publishes a quarterly magazine. One of the principle editors for WPRI is conservative Milwaukee radio talk show host Charlie Sykes. Significant benefactors of WPRI include Northwestern Mutual Foundation, Wausau Paper Foundation, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Charlotte & Walter Kohler Charitable Trust, the Lubar Family Foundation, and the Roe Foundation.

In an October 2000 report by Phil Wilayto, it was disclosed that “…in 1997, the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy published a list of 100 conservative organizations, think tanks, institutes and publications that had received the most funding from the 12 largest right-wing foundations for the years 1992 to 1994. The first five were well-known: the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, the Cato Institute and Citizens for a Sound Economy.  Number Six – out of 100 – was the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. Between ’92 and ’94, the WPRI received nine grants totaling $3,372,500.00. That was the largest amount given any state conservative think tank, and indicates how important Wisconsin is to the national conservative movement. 4 From its beginning in 1987 through 1998, the Institute received 36 grants totaling $5,158,890 from the John M. Olin and Lynde and Harry Bradley foundations, most of it from Bradley.” 

The omissions from the MJS article are telling. In spite of this conservative bias, the new poll, when contrasted with the March WPRI poll,  shows how much trouble state Republicans are actually in – and demonstrates the inherent Progressive heritage in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Political Environment – First, public opinion on Walker, Republicans, and Democrats. With a margin of error (MoE) of 4 points, public opinion of State Democrats in the Legislature are virtually unchanged since March (50% favorable in March, 48% now – within the MoE; 42% unfavorable in March, 41% now). Scott Walker’s unfavorable rating also is virtually unchanged, in spite of the poll results being 7 months removed from the largest protests (53% unfavorable in March, 56% now; 43% favorable in March, 42% now – all within the MoE). Now the bad news for Legislative Republicans. In March, state GOP lawmakers faced an unfavorable rating of 46%, with a favorable rating of 46% – an even split, with 8% undecided. Now, GOP lawmakers received an unfavorable rating of 52% – a significant increase in 7 months; garnering only a 38% favorable rating, also a large decrease. This indicates a growing disapproval among Wisconsinites for the way the state GOP is legislating, along with continued low ratings for Scott Walker.

When asked if the state was “going in the right direction,” or is “off track,” the response differences in 7 months are significant. In March, 33% felt the state was going in the right direction, while 62% felt it was on the wrong track. Now, 38% feel the state is going in the right direction, while 57% feel it is “off track.”  While this may initially look like good news for Scott Walker, think again. Although more people think the state is moving in the right direction, what does that mean? How do people interpret “right direction?” If Scott Walker’s poll numbers are unchanged, and he is still getting highly unfavorable numbers, that increase must be independent of Walker, as people’s attitudes about him are unchanged – the same is true of the Democrats. The change is in attitudes towards Republicans – they are getting lower ratings than 7 months ago. Since then, GOP Senators have been recalled, there has been a groundswell of grassroots efforts to move back to more Progressive politics, and a date has been set for the Walker recall. There is a noticeable shift occurring in the politics of the state. If one considers the plummeting GOP favorable rating, and the pushback against GOP policies; the perceived movement back to Progressive politics could explain the slight increase in “right direction” response.  People would not respond favorably to the policies of GOP legislators if they rate them so unfavorably – the two are mutually exclusive. They would respond favorably to a percieved shift away from GOP lawmakers and their policies they rate “unfavorable.” Bad news for the GOP.

The next significant numbers in the poll indicate people’s attitudes about the future economy and quality of life – again, bad news for the GOP. Question 19 begins with the statement that the current state budget slows the growth of spending and included cuts in many areas. Do you believe this approach will improve the quality of life, or lead to decline in the quality of life? While the question is softened by framing it as  “lead to decline”, as opposed to “has caused”, or “will cause decline”, the results are significant – a full 53% believe such cuts will “lead to decline” in quality of life, only 41% believe it will improve.

In the MJS article, it was highlighted that fewer people think the economy will “get worse” in the future. That assertion and conclusion requires a little insight. In March, 29% said the economy would “get better”, 36% said “get worse”, 31% “stay the same.” Now, 28% say “get better” (no change), 19% say get worse (decrease), 49% “stay the same (increase). The significance is in the nature of the economy in March as compared to October. The economy HAS gotten worse – including unemployment in Wisconsin rising since March. There is likely a “regression to the mean” which has occurred, as people could be perceiving we have “bottomed out” and a majority believe (or hope), it won’t get worse – thus, “stay the same”. The most significant number is that there are no more people in seven months who see cause for optimism in the economy – the “get better” number is virtually unchanged.

Completely ignored in this corporate media spin on the WPRI poll are the facts – this poll is bad news for a state Republican party clinging to a sinking ship of its own design and destruction. The same poll in March warned Scott Walker and the GOP of public attitudes about their failure to negotiate and acidic tone. They ignored the people, and they now face a storm of public criticism, skepticism, and potential recalls. While these political numbers are telling, the rest of the poll gives recall supporters a good look at what issues resonate with Wisconsinites – and what other issues the GOP is losing ground on.

Tomorrow in Badger Democracy – results on Environmental Regulation, Prisons, Unions, and Public Education.