A Surprising Number of Wisconsin Voters Have No Opinion on Ron Johnson. Who Are They?

Our senior Senator has been in office for more than a decade and is constantly in the news. And yet, one in four state voters "haven't heard enough" to have an opinion on the controversial Republican.

The Recombobulation Area is an award-winning weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

First, a few things to catch up on before we dive into this week’s column. 

I have made a number of media appearances over the last few weeks to promote The Recombobulation Area’s “Expanding the Divide” series, and my recent column on the Milwaukee Bucks’ championship.

I talked with Joy Powers on WUWM’s Lake Effect about the proposed expansion of I-94 and the “Expanding the Divide” series.

I talked with Naomi Kowles on Channel 3000’s “For the Record” about the Bucks winning the Finals and how Milwaukee almost lost their NBA team.  

I talked with Bart Winkler on Sportsradio 1250 AM The Fan about my column on the Bucks championship and what it means for Milwaukee. 

I talked with 620 WTMJ’s Steve Scaffidi about I-94 expansion proposals and why it’s time to talk about tearing down the Stadium Freeway in Milwaukee. 

I talked with Francesca Hong and Nada Elmikashfi on “Sharp Elbows” on Devil Radio about the Bucks, the “Expanding the Divide” series, voting rights, and more (even a bit of the Dan Shafer Origin Story). 

And I was featured in a video from UpNorth News on the proposed expansion of I-94 and the “Expanding the Divide” series. 

If you’d like to have me on your show or your podcast, find me at dan.shafer.media@gmail.com. There will be more appearances to come, too, and I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

On to the column...


A Surprising Number of Wisconsin Voters Have No Opinion of Ron Johnson. Who Are They?

Here at The Recombobulation Area, we have published a recap and breakdown of each new edition of the Marquette University Law School Poll dating back to August 2019

Among the ongoing curiosities from those poll results that consistently piques interest here is the lack of opinion Wisconsin voters have of our senior Senator, Ron Johnson. 

Johnson is a mainstay in the news, and has been for some time. Despite that, huge numbers of people have yet to form an opinion on the outspoken, conspiratorial hard-line Republican. I first wrote about this phenomenon in my October 2019 poll recap. From there, the Marquette pollsters themselves featured this in their breakdown of the June 2020 poll. In each poll, between 23 and 29 percent of voters “haven’t heard enough” or “don’t know” their opinion of Ron Johnson. It has been a remarkably consistent poll result. 

But since the last poll results from the MU poll before last fall’s election, Johnson’s profile has risen considerably. He’s been among the most vocal anti-vaccine Republicans and has been a one of the most prominent voices downplaying the insurrection on Jan. 6, putting him in the political spotlight on a near constant basis. 

Just this week even, some of Johnson’s more despicable actions were revealed by ProPublica, where an investigation detailed how an ultimatum he made during the 2017 tax cut negotiations directly lined the pockets of his two biggest donors — Dick and Liz Uihlein, owners of Pleasant Prairie-based Uline, and Diane Hendricks, chair of Beloit-based ABC Supply — to the tune of $215 million. It’s a pretty big scandal, but who knows where it will rank alongside his other high-profile outrage-inducing headlines that have been coming at a relentless pace in 2021. 

Marquette’s new poll results are showing that 42% of voters now have an “unfavorable” view of Johnson. That’s actually his highest “unfavorable” number on record in the poll. His net favorability shifted from a +2 to a -7 in the months since the final pre-election results. It appears that his never-ending media tour of insurrection whitewashing and vaccine skepticism has not boosted his popularity in his home state. 

But how many people still “haven’t heard enough” about a Senator we seemingly can’t stop hearing about?

That number is...20%. Another 3% still “don’t know” how they feel about him. 

That did not change considerably from the last poll result, where 23% of voters were in the “haven’t heard enough” category and 3% were in the “don’t know.” Again, this result has been remarkably consistent. 

It’s not a result you see all too often with other politicians in the state, either. Far fewer voters “haven’t heard enough” to have an opinion of Sen. Tammy Baldwin — that number hasn’t been above 20% since 2017.


So, who are these voters who do not have an opinion of Wisconsin’s senior Senator, now in his second decade in office?

Let’s take a look. 

Figuring 23% is the average for the combined percentages of the “haven’t heard enough” and “don’t know” responses, these are the key areas where that combined number is 30% or greater.

  • 45%: 18-29 (age)

  • 34%: Under $40k (income)

  • 30%: High school (education)

These are also above 30%, but each has a fairly small sample size, so the margin of error is higher:

  • 52%: Hispanic (race and ethnicity)

  • 46%: Black (race and ethnicity)

And here, we have a couple other notable results. Republicans, not surprisingly, are well aware of the state’s highest-ranking member of their party (just 18% “haven’t heard enough”/”don’t know”), as are those who lean Republican (22%). Independents and those who lean Democratic, however, are less likely to have an opinion of Johnson. 

  • 45%: Independent (party ID)

  • 30%: Lean Dem (party ID)

Has this “knowability factor” (if you want to call it that) changed since last fall? Who is getting to know Johnson a bit better?

Here are a few areas with significant shifts in the combined “haven’t heard enough”/”don’t know” category:

  • -13%: 30-44 (age), from 38% combined to 25% 

  • -13%: MKE City (region), from 38% to 25%  

  • -11%: 40k to 74k (income), from 28% to 17%

Each of these shifts also came with declining net favorability numbers for Johnson, showing that as people have developed opinions on Johnson, they haven’t been all that positive. 

While this all shows compelling movement in public perception of Ron Johnson during a rather notable time in his tenure as Senator, it all means very little when it comes to electoral politics. The 2022 election is still 14 months away, and Johnson has not yet said whether or not he would run. 

He has, however, filed official “Statement of Candidacy” paperwork with the Federal Election Commission that would allow him to run. If he were to choose to seek re-election, it would not be surprising decision in the least. 

Were he to do so, the race for his seat could perhaps be the single most competitive race on the 2022 Senate map. Democratic Rep. Ron Kind’s pending retirement could make his seat the most competitive on the House map, too. Wisconsin being at the very center of the nation’s balance of power is something we’re pretty used to by now, but nonetheless, buckle up. 

And so, looking at the data of who does not currently have an opinion on Ron Johnson, it stands to reason that the younger, more diverse, left-leaning voters who are yet to take a side could be more likely to show up in the “unfavorable” column. Those could be the type of voters the Democratic Party could focus on reaching as the campaign unfolds. 

But again, that is a conversation that is a long way away. The primary for the Senate race is not until Aug. 9, 2022. Much could happen between now and then. 

But one thing is likely for the foreseeable future: About one in four voters in the state of Wisconsin will more than likely not have an opinion on Ron Johnson, our senior Senator. 

Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes the award-winning column, The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.

Subscribe to The Recombobulation Area newsletter here and follow us on Facebook at @therecombobulationarea.

Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.