Monday, October 27, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

Mary Burke puts it all on turnout, and
knows the evidence about polls in not
determinative though she's ahead.
There is a misconception about election polling. It has allowed media to trumpet possibilities and opinions as fact even though the Wisconsin results are tied or swing back and forth among a dozen polling companies. 

Nor is it mentioned how pollsters depend on the media for attention and even play to their special outlets. When Charles Franklin at Marquette University,  who  has a respected reputation within the industry,  expressed amazement to Marquette students at how effectively Mary Burke had “closed the gap”  with Scott Walker among both male and female likely voters, it was Franklin’s perceived gap in a narrowly drawn poll. As for “amazed,” that assumed she stood where his media partners wanted – so far behind that tying Walker was “amazing.”   Perhaps, perhaps not.

These polls don’t trumpet the gubernatorial desires of all Wisconsin citizens,  but selective opinion – people who said in about 1,000 phone calls they were voting and which way.  That’s often right, but that’s  quite different than the population as a whole, especially in a nonpresidential year when less than half the citizens tend to show up.

Breaking events and information on the ground change who shows up.  Foolish to say the state is behind Walker and equally foolish to say the majority wants him gone. No one has measured that. If citizens get excited about this race, all bets are off.

Since journalists don’t have the resources to know the whole and recognize how valid over time the pollsters have been,  they use the polls to pretend they absolutely know, sort of a shorthand excuse that can encompass one-sided or lazy reporting.

We have seen elections where the results went against media expectations (Baldwin over Thompson as one recent case) because the journalists  didn’t listen hard enough to the people and didn’t have extensive polling to lean on.

The polling does allows the media a lot of definitive-sounding posturing even if the election results are too close to call – and too close is the widespread opinion of national poll experts including Charles Franklin, who think the race between Scott Walker and Mary Burke despite any poll swings is a tossup. Or, one or the other could be 10 points ahead. Depends on who is motivated to show up.

Commentators absorbed in politics, like me, speak from interviews, outlook and experience. But we don’t confuse speculations with  facts. Most of the public doesn’t get agitated as we do  until they realize how much those in office can influence their lives. So what drives people to vote depends on many factors. Intense public interest in politics lags behind actual upset or economic harm.  That’s why who shows up is hard to predict in these so-called low turnout elections and candidate groups  try to herd people to the polls whether they are agitated or not. 

That lack of public attention, the reliance on pundits and the amount of money spent by political parties on habit generation among past supporters  allow  distortions in interpreting the polls – and such  nonsense as the Oct. 25 JS editorial.

Here is a newspaper that was so burned in endorsing Scott Walker in 2010 --  and leaning so blatantly toward him in the 2012 by decrying the whole idea of recalls it had once supported -- that it has sworn off endorsing anyone ever again, though a newspaper is supposed to dare expressing ethical editorial opinions whether popular or not.  Safety or cowardice first, you decide.

Moreover this is a newspaper so bad at reading the future,  its community and tech changes among consumers that readership and profits have  sunk like a stone. It was so out of touch that now an out of town group, E.W.  Scripps, has absorbed  JS into its “dead trees” division of less profitable print.

And just as the Scripps management  takes over, the newspaper is shedding both legacy and higher salaried veterans in a buyout equivalent to a Stalinist purge. Sources list the departures as Duane Dudek, Don Walker, Georgia Pabst, Mike Hunt, Bob Wolfley, Jan Uebelherr, Gary Porter, Greg  Pearson, Alan King, Mabel Wong, Tom Tolan, Mike Juley, Roberta Wahlers and  top editors Marty Kaiser and George Stanley.

(Added note Oct. 27 – Though neither has denied or confirmed to me in person, I am getting some blowback on including top editors Marty Kaiser and George Stanley among the rumored departures from Journal Sentinel. But their names were confirmed by three sources inside and outside Fourth and State and included in an internal message discussing who was working out departures. I hate to be wrong, even using more sources than the newspaper does, and am not sure I am, but willing to partly correct and await developments.)

Despite its  record of not  knowing what is happening, JS presumed to lead off its Oct. 25 editorial on the governor’s race with this:

“If the electorate is suffering from the virus known as Walker Fatigue, we haven't seen it yet.”

Should a Foghorn Leghorn type be
governor? Sure sounds like what
JS editorial wants.
I interpret the full editorial as giving Walker the edge in public favor based on the entrenched political powerhouses in his corner, namely Robin Vos and Scott Fitzgerald, suggesting Burke and company would be better off just rolling over, even dismissing her after some nice words as  “quietly competent” --  as if the public needs  Foghorn Leghorn bluster in an effective leader.

The interpretation is mine  but the quoted sentence is theirs and it is as close to a falsehood as you can find in once-legitimate print.  It’s certainly not based on man on the street interviews or even poll numbers  because those show something else.

Now I simply don’t know what will occur at the ballot box, since I can’t determine how many will cross over to Burke’s side or simply stay home rather than do their former  GOP duty, or maybe get more aggressive in fear of losing their one-time hero.  But it is irrefutable if you know how to talk to people in River Hills, Franklin, Waukesha County suburbs and even at Brookfield Square (right-wing bastions in public perception). There is a growing sense of uncertainty, a wish to believe in Walker’s warts-and-all audacity but a worry over the consequences of his absolutist authoritarian approach to power, plus concerns about what is happening to schools and communities (along with  some curious contentment  about putting unions in their place). 

The upshot? Walker’s reputation is in some disarray among his past  supporters while anger  among  the constant opposition has grown. It could be that passion that isn’t from the right  is keeping some in his camp because they dislike excessive left-wing emotion in politics – I know that sounds snide but it was there in interviews.

Many who voted for Walker in 2010 – and again in 2012 because they wanted a full four years to decide – are not voting for him again, they tell family and close friends. This is a regular election not a recall, they say, and they are disappointed in his four years. But  living in Republican communities they speak their minds quietly and not on the phone to strangers and definitely not to politically entrenched neighbors.  And apparently not to JS editorial writers.  

Now whether that means votes for Burke or hold your nose and vote for Walker -- who can say? But it is certainly there. 

Understanding the limits and the nature of predictions, I generally believe in polls,  though even their operatives concede there is far more guesswork in a nonpresidential year.

Charles Franklin (left) with JS political expert Craig
Gilbert during panel.
The pollster and opinion makers recently discussed their thinking in an interesting Milwaukee Press Club panel.   Watch carefully though and you will see justification rather than explanation for how well Burke as a political newcomer is doing against those entrenched politicos. Charles Franklin doesn’t dwell on the reasons (his final Marquette poll comes out Oct. 29), perhaps because he realizes that he got far more JS coverage when Walker was five points ahead Oct. 3  rather than recently when Burke eliminated the gap (and is ahead in some respected polling models). 

But here’s a funny and it comes right back to JS honesty. Another respected polling company, Gravis based in Florida, had Burke up five points the same week Marquette had Walker up five points, yet not a mention in JS.  The Gravis people told me they noticed and were amused since they thought their sample and methods were as comprehensive. 

But all these pollsters,  and Wisconsin has been inundated, say weekly swings are inevitable, the race is a tossup and turnout will decide. 

There are unnoticed reasons why JS is playing up the Marquette poll so heavily. First, it is local and it is reputable,  run by a university.  But it is also advised by former Journal Communications regulars Mike Gousha and Alan Borsuk. During their tenure Journal Communications had its own expensive and careful Journal polling division, regularly used to headline newspaper and TV opinion reports, much as Marquette’s poll is used now. A private university has filled the gap of the newspaper’s fading fortunes and is being pumped into prominence equally hard.

I don’t know everything about the internal workings of Franklin’s poll team, but I’ve been called with some disturbing examples.  For instance, citizens I know said they were registered regular voters, then  gave their age as over 70 --- and then the Marquette  pollsters thanked them and  hung up without taking their opinions.

All polls are weighted to reflect demographic factors and the argument might be made that  the young  callers had sufficient information from voters over 70. But wait a minute! A 25 year old who says he is a regular voter is frankly less believable than a 76 year old who votes every election for decades, so why not count the totality? This could easily cut both ways and influence  the outcomes.

I have talked to a number of polling experts and they concede their multiple phone surveys, some automated,  are built on assumed gridlock – that is, strong opinions on both sides.  I noted how local pollsters discussing movement toward Burke didn’t change their assumption that the state is equally gridlocked between opposing factions. Marquette said Burke’s gains were mainly greater interest now that the election is close or  that a sliver of “undecideds” are leaning her way.  Except  Marquette identifies the percentage of self-described independent voters at 37% and the motion showed considerable Burke  gains in a segment that once was conceded as  Walker’s – men. There may be a heck of lot more churn than the media pretends in gridlocked Wisconsin.

We are also overpolled by a dozen firms -- to the point of annoyance when the phone rings. “Magic Town” comes to mind. That’s the  1947 Jimmy Stewart movie  about a community that  is a perfect measure of public opinion -- until its residents discover they are being polled and their opinions become unreliable.

I’m not being a Pollyanna for Burke  because I just don’t know. But neither does anyone else. 

I am disturbed by all the pundits who act as if they absolutely know without evidence.  I just wish they had the courage to say what they believe rather than some clumsy “on the one hand and then on the other” obfuscation.

So throw all that media navel-gazing out the window, look at the issues not the misleading ad lures whatever the side, and vote without fear and out of principle. Remember principle? 

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its famous entertainment Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with its still operative archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as pieces at his Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for 

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