Todd Robert Murphy calls Governor race for Mary Burke by a Nose
The Wisconsin Race for Governor Who will win?
The easy way out of this narrative on the gubernatorial race would be to call it a coin toss between Scott Walker and Mary Burke. All of the polling data is pointing in that direction. The paradox of this campaign is Walker should be winning handily and he’s not. Statistically speaking, it’s a draw. In combination with the tangible elements of the campaign, deciphering the qualitative complexities is a critical part of the equation. The elusive variables of a campaign are the things you can’t measure that are generally refined through experience. The more experience you have, the better your instincts.
The Burke-Walker race for governor is one of the most complicated political dynamics Wisconsin has experienced in a long time. And, the incumbent may lose. That could be construed as nothing short of heresy in the very red county of Waukesha. There is a case to be made for either candidate to win the election; my thesis dissects both sides of the argument. Few people who are active in either camp would discount my line of reasoning privately.
Some of the issues both candidates have been peddling on the campaign trail should be put into perspective or just debunked. Mary Burke is alleging we are headed for a $1.8 billion deficit, which is as close to impossible as me being named the next archbishop of Milwaukee. It assumes there will be no growth, or zero revenue growth. If the state of Wisconsin continues at its current growth rate we would likely achieve a balanced budget. So candidate Burke is fairly heavy-handed on the assumption side of her analysis. Act 10 is a non-issue at most kitchen tables in Wisconsin; it’s over, end of story, and the Capitol protests lost a lot of folks on the issue of collective bargaining rights. Privately, most municipal officials are happy with the result. Walker has avoided the issue and, to many, it’s one of his most significant achievements. His avoidance makes no sense.
Walker continues talking about 100,000 new jobs he’s created and the horrible hand he was dealt when former Gov. Jim Doyle left office. He promised he’d create 250,000 new jobs and hasn’t come close, so he’s carving the turkey from the backside of the bird. Any candidate who would have been elected in 2010 would have been left with a tough economy and a bleak job market. His refrain is a tired whine, much like President Obama blaming President Bush for his problems. Voters don’t care. Walker claims to have put our house in good order financially but there were plenty of developments nationally that contributed. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is something most people like, they want it improved, and they are saving money on health care costs. The frenzied pronouncements this would be the beginning of lousy health care were never true and it was never a good issue for Walker.
Property taxes are lower because Walker gave us across-the-board tax cuts, saving the average household around $150.00. But, he did so on the back of education cuts; a claim that Burke has hammered in her campaign. It’s mostly true. But he has also reprioritized the need for post-high school training programs. Still, Mary Burke’s pizza slice commercial is very effective and it looks like a decent pizza. And, Walker’s tax cut won’t cover the heating bill for most households this January.
Mary Burke, on the other hand, has tripped, stumbled, tumbled, slipped, plummeted, plunged, and vaulted her way from obscurity to make this a neck-and-neck race. She handled herself well in the debates, although few people actually watched them. She avoided embarrassing headlines and news reports. The charge of plagiarism on her jobs plan was mishandled by her campaign. Lifting work from other campaigns is done all the time and the accusation laughable to insiders. Still, it was dumb. But it appears, according to the polls, she dodged a bullet.
Jim Doyle and Mary Burke aren’t conjoined. Most people only vaguely remember Doyle. Tying Burke to Doyle was a weak tactic. There is research that demonstrates you can’t transfer the personal popularity or disdain from one politician to another. The electorate generally doesn’t blame candidates for prior association. Mary Burke’s tenure as commerce secretary isn’t very relevant in this campaign. It’s not like Jim Doyle was Jimmy Carter.
Burke hasn’t overplayed the woman card. It was the right move. Women aren’t a homogenous horde of Philistines who march in lock step to the single issue of the Emily’s List’s movement: abortion. Women are increasingly finding the single-issue resonance of Emily’s list abortion rights mantra insulting. While Walker may not be winning the women’s vote, the real question is: Will Burke win enough of it? While Walker’s ad, stating reasonable people can disagree about abortion, given his strong pro-life background, may have backfired. Many women found it offensive, not because of his position but because it was insulting to all women by its insincere pandering.
The charge of plagiarism on her jobs plan was ludicrous but an issue that looked like it would stick. Walker’s camps handled the initial reports very well. Lifting work from other campaigns is done all the time and not only in the written word but also in TV, direct mail, radio ads, and get-out-the-vote efforts. Does anyone really believe Scott Walker wrote all his plans? Many thought this would stick to Burke but it hasn’t.
Bill Clinton is a rock star and helps build the Burke brand--the Obamas don’t. They should be avoided; it hurts her. But again, not devastating.
Walker’s inability to move the needle in terms of favorability is puzzling. He hasn’t been a bad governor. He ran hard in the recall and has been ballot-tested twice before. He can’t seem to move beyond that 45 percent to 50 percent in the polls. It seems baffling for his campaign too. The question is, why?
The constant news reports on the Walker John Doe probe and the criminal acts of a half-dozen of his surrogates may have left doubts in the minds of voters as to his culpability. He’s never been charged. But the constancy of the news reports has taken its toll. I have written in the past that it is morally and ethically wrong to dangle unsubstantiated allegations tarnishing his name. And, it could be the one of the underlining reasons, as the incumbent he appears so vulnerable.
But Walker’s campaign has made mistakes. His campaign should have demanded many more debates. It was a mistake to hold two Friday night debates so close to the election and on high school football night. Many of his own people encouraged more debates. It was an opportunity to draw distinction with Burke on their respective approach’s to governance and define each other on important issues. It was a blown opportunity for people to get to know their governor.
When Scott Walker said in the last debate, “We don’t have a jobs problem, we have a work problem,” the context in which he made the statement was clear. But that’s not how it’s been reported and it hurt him. He also blundered significantly opposing a modest minimum wage increase. Over 70 percent of Wisconsinites support the increase. Despite a 5.4 percent unemployment rate, real income for average families is down more than $2,000 during Walker’s tenure. These are pocketbook issues to voters. It created a huge opportunity for Burke on topics of job creation and the modest minimum wage increase. She’s grabbed the ball and continues to run with it.
There is an apparent and mystifying disaffection with Walker and voters. It’s not quantifiable; people who are passionate about him are very passionate and people who dislike him really dislike him. In his own party, Republicans overwhelmingly favor Congressman Paul Ryan as the GOP standard-bearer.
Walker is almost robotically smarmy; when speaking he seems unapproachable. He tends to romanticize his tenure as governor and it’s simply not jibing with the difficulties people continue to deal with as we slog our way out of the recession. There is a discontent in the electorate. Wisconsin is still struggling and there is a feeling of stagnation and powerlessness that’s not parochial to our state. Republican pollster Frank Luntz, responding to a recent CBS poll, said there is a “crisis of confidence” in government institutions. He went on to say, “I think it’s going to hurt incumbents. Take a look at the governors’ races across the country, there are a number of incumbents from both parties that look like they’re going down.”
When he was asked if there is an anti-incumbent sentiment, he responded, “Exactly.”
Weighing the option of change for change’s sake is part of the intellectual deliberations voters consider when casting a vote. Francis Bacon wrote in his treatise “Novum Organum,” “For man always believes more readily that which he prefers. His feelings imbue and corrupt his understanding in innumerable and sometimes imperceptible ways.” Weather, and the lack of voter ID requirements, favor Burke, as imperceptible as that seems. The extended forecast is for a seasonal and sunny day.
Scott Walker came into this race with something to lose but his hold on the governorship has always been tentative. The 2012 recall should have reminded him of this. Walker has failed to reconnect strongly with voters. Mary Burke has stayed on message. It’s a simple message: We could have, and should have, done better the past four years.
Mary Burke is the next Governor of Wisconsin…by a nose.
Mise le Meas
(Todd Robert Murphy pays attention and has orchestrated over 80 political campaigns, including some of the biggest upsets in Wisconsin. You can contact him at email@example.com)