3 Takeaways From the November 2019 Marquette University Law School Poll

Donald Trump's strongest Wisconsin poll in months, the latest on the Democratic primary, and who noticed that Wisconsin Republicans fired the state agriculture secretary?

The Recombobulation Area is a new weekly column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

By The White House from Washington, DC - Cabinet Meeting, Public Domain


Wisconsin might be the most important state in the 2020 presidential election, and the Marquette University Law School Poll is the state’s gold standard of measuring where voters stand, so here at The Recombobulation Area, each new poll is going to be monitored closely. 

This is a bit of a strange time for the Marquette University Law School Poll to be released. The poll was conducted between Nov. 13 and 17, before a significant week of testimony in the impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives, and before a Democratic presidential debate on Nov. 20. Nevertheless, let’s dive in.

Here are three takeaways from the November poll:

1. This is a really good poll for Trump

In the August and October polls, trends had begun to swing in Democrats’ favor. In general election matchups, Trump was behind most of the top candidates. The state’s outlook on the economy was lukewarm (at best). Support for impeachment was on the rise.

That all changed in this poll. For the first time since August (when the Democratic field was getting set), Trump is leading most of his potential opponents in the 2020 election.

Here’s where he stands:

Trump: 47%
Biden: 44%
Neither: 5%
Don’t Know: 2%

Trump: 48%
Sanders: 45%
Neither: 5%
Don’t Know: 2%

Trump: 48%
Warren: 43%
Neither: 4%
Don’t Know: 4%

Trump: 47%
Buttigieg: 39%
Neither: 6%
Don’t Know: 7%

And timing is of course important here, but opinions on impeachment overall dipped from the October poll, which was conducted before any public hearings began. 

Notably, a clear majority (54% to 29%) believe Trump asked the Ukranian president to investigate his domestic political rivals, and more did than didn’t (41%-38%) say he held up military aid to pressure the Ukranian president — that includes 30% to 26% of independents who say he did hold up aid. But overall, the first wave of hearings certainly didn’t result in a big swing in favor of the Democrats’ push for impeachment.

Beyond the impeachment questions, the November poll also shows some movement in favor of Trump’s handling of the economy. 

It also shows that far more Wisconsinites now think the economy is going to improve over the next year. 

Trump’s approval rating is still under water (as it almost always has been), and a clear majority still disapproves of the way he’s handling foreign policy, but this is undoubtedly the best poll for the president here in Wisconsin in several months. 

This is a good reminder of why so many view Wisconsin as the most important swing state in the 2020 election. It is more likely to go to Donald Trump than even some other Midwestern states like Michigan or Minnesota. Trump still enjoys a great deal of support here. Republicans still back him in huge, huge numbers -- 92 percent of his party approves of the job he’s doing as president. As Franklin noted, Trump’s strong poll this month is indicative of his party support coming through.

No matter who is speaking in Milwaukee next July as the Democratic nominee, Trump will still probably the favorite to win Wisconsin next November. There’s a lot of work to be done here over the next 12 months.

2. The Democrats remain undecided on a nominee

Last month in this space, it looked like undecided voters in Wisconsin were disappearing. That no longer appears to be the case.

The number of Wisconsin voters responding “Don’t Know” when asked about their first choice in the Democratic primary jumped from 4 percent in October to 10 percent in November (in August, that number was 13 percent). 

Notably, Charles Franklin said the shifts among the candidate preferences from October to November were not statistically significant. But here’s a snapshot of how things have changed among Democratic primary voters’ first choice:

  • Joe Biden: 30% (-1)

  • Bernie Sanders: 17% (-)

  • Elizabeth Warren: 15% (-9)

  • Pete Buttigieg: 13% (+6)

  • Don’t Know: 10% (+6)

  • Kamala Harris: 2% (-3)

  • Andrew Yang: 2% (-1)

Here’s how second choices have changed since October:

  • Elizabeth Warren: 19% (-8)

  • Bernie Sanders: 18% (+5)

  • Joe Biden: 15% (-4)

  • Pete Buttigieg: 10% (-)

  • Amy Klobuchar: 8% (+4)

  • Kamala Harris: 4% (-5)

  • Tulsi Gabbard: 3% (-1)

  • Cory Booker: 3% (-1)

  • Andrew Yang: 2% (-)

Mirroring what has happened nationally, Warren’s numbers have dipped in November. Being viewed as the frontrunner, at least in certain states, opens a candidates up to greater scrutiny, and perhaps that’s what we’re seeing here. Nevertheless, Warren is still among the three candidates leading the polls (with Buttigieg knocking on the door, but distinctly in fourth). Compared to the other two, there are still many voters (24%) who “haven’t heard enough” or “don’t know” where they stand on Warren — a number that’s just 12 percent for Biden and 9 percent for Sanders — so it’s certainly possible that there’s still room for her numbers to grow as more people in the state get to know her. 

But with Warren’s climb leveling off, Biden continuing to trend downward (to the point where more moderate candidates like Deval Patrick and Michael Bloomberg are entering the race to fill a potential void), and Buttigieg starting to receive a greater level of scrutiny with his rising numbers, Bernie Sanders is going to be a candidate to watch in the coming weeks. He leads the Democratic field in fundraising, and after picking up some key endorsements, seems poised to make his move. With less than 75 days until the Iowa caucus, the time for Sanders and his supporters to go all-in is fast approaching. 

3. A lot of people don’t know that Wisconsin Republicans fired the state agriculture secretary

It was a big news story around the state when Republicans in the Assembly and Senate voted to fire Brad Pfaff, Gov. Evers’ nominee to lead the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, but 47 percent of those polled said they “haven’t heard anything about this” when asked. It was the first time something like this happened in decades, but it appears that the story failed to truly connect. 

Those who did hear of it were largely split — 22 percent in favor of removal, 25 percent opposed.

The ideological group most likely to have heard about this is those identifying as “very conservative,” 62 percent of whom said it was right of the legislature to reject Pfaff, 2 percent said it was wrong, and just 25 percent saying they hadn’t heard the news. More than 40 percent of the five other groups (conservative, moderate, liberal, very liberal) said they hadn’t heard about the firing. 

A demographic most likely not to have heard about Pfaff’s firing is 18-29-year-olds, 72 percent of whom said they were unaware. 

There’s work to be done to make sure news like this — firing the person running the agriculture department as dairy farms close at an accelerating rate — connects with voters, particularly young voters who are not on the far right end of the political spectrum.