Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Stealth Conservatives

Bradley-funded think tank changes its polls and subsidizes Journal Sentinel’s right-wing columnist.

By - Oct 11th, 2012 11:49 am
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These are quieter days for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, the conservative or “free market” think tank, as the group prefers to call itself. Call the institute and you get a phone message rather than a live human. And then there is its one-time — and controversial — pollster Ken Goldstein, who left this state to run a political consulting company based in Washington, D.C., not long after being blasted by liberals for his work with the think tank.

The WPRI was created and bankrolled by the conservative Bradley Foundation in 1987, with the mission to push the state and its policy-making in a rightward direction. Its longtime executive director Jim Miller was a pugnacious ex-Democrat who deemed the state backward and too liberal in his thinking. Along with policy making the institute did polls, part of a concerted strategy to give the think tank a higher profile statewide, Miller once told me. The polls routinely won the group front-page headlines.

Miller was ahead of his time with these polls, says George Lightbourn, who took over as WPRI leader in 2009. “Back then, he was the only game in town. Now you’ve got Quinnipiac and Public Policy Polling and Rasmussen and all these others.” For decades, Miller used Gordon Black as pollster, but much of the analysis was done by Miller, Lightbourn says.

Lightbourn has a reputation as a moderate Republican, who served as the all-important Secretary of Administration under governors Tommy Thompson and Scott McCallum. His board now includes fellow members of the Thompson administration like James Klauser and Gerald Whitburn, and the organization rebranded itself as a free market think tank. But that hasn’t mollified its liberal critics.

Lightbourn brought on Ken Goldstein, a highly regarded professor of political science at UW-Madison with a national reputation as a top pollster, who was a frequent expert guest on broadcast media shows. Goldstein’s polls — which included surveys of cell phone users — didn’t come cheaply. The WPRI’s federal tax form for 2010 shows it paid him $398,250 for the year.

But liberals were suspicious of the university lending its name — and star scholar — to a conservative think tank. Scot Ross, who then ran the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, requested Goldstein’s emails with Lightbourn, and found a couple eyebrow raisers, as the Associated Press reported.

Goldstein’s poll showed a majority of state residents opposed school choice, but Lightbourn demanded that Goldstein run a headline touting the finding that Milwaukee residents favored school choice. The state results were included, if you looked hard enough, but were buried in the report.

Goldstein was also asked to poll people as to whether they would support Tommy if he chose to run against then incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Russ Feingold. The results showed Thompson was favored by a small margin, and Lightbourn issued a press release claiming the poll showed Thompson would beat Feingold. The emails showed that Goldstein scolded Lightbourn for simplifying the report’s analysis this way.

In reaction, UW officials asked the WPRI to stop using the university’s logo and stopped providing graduate students to work on these polls.  Within a year, Goldstein stopped doing polls for WPRI and soon took a job as president of Kantar Media CMAG, a Washington, DC-based political consulting firm. He also teaches at George Washington University.

Not long after this the Marquette Law School cut a deal with Goldstein’s longtime colleague at UW-Madison’s Political Science Department, Charles Franklin, to do polls for MU. Franklin, who co-founded Pollster.com, is also highly regarded nationally, and has a deal to do polls through the entire 2012 year.

When he heard Franklin would be doing monthly political polls, Lightbourn decided there was no need for the WPRI to do them. “We’re indifferent to the horse race,” he says. “If we do a poll that shows Romney up four points or down two points, it just adds to the blizzard of polls.”

The group will still do polls, but probably less frequently (its last one was released a year ago), less about elections and more about public policy issues. Their new pollster is Will Howell, a political science professor who once taught at UW-Milwaukee, but is now at the University of Chicago. In short, no one will be able to request Howell’s emails with Lightbourn, because U of Chicago is a private institution.

Meanwhile, the institute has made a killing when it comes to getting its columnists featured at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Former JS columnist Mike Nichols left the paper to join the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, but still does a Sunday column for the newspaper (though it is not that hard-edged ideologically speaking). More significantly, the paper added Christian Schneider as a twice-weekly columnist and now does ads boasting to readers that Schneider “makes liberals see red.”

This is extraordinary on many levels. From a balance perspective, the move might have made a modicum of sense while the often liberal Eugene Kane was still a regular columnist, though Kane’s columns were more about a black perspective on the news. And like all traditional newspaper columnists, he came first out of reporting and developed a skepticism about all newsmakers.

Schneider, by contrast, is simply a Republican operative. He worked eight years for Republican legislators and now does columns supporting the party. His column arguing that Tammy Baldwin “had shed her reputation for preternatural niceness” and “is using her campaign to convince people she’s a steely, ruthless campaign cyborg” helped reinforce a new Republican ad that managed to find some rare footage of Baldwin looking mean and portraying her as a liberal hellion.

What makes this more egregious is that these columns are subsidized by the WPRI. Typically, a full-time job for a newspaper columnist is three columns a week; Schneider does two. He gets a freelance fee from the newspaper, but that doesn’t pay for his time spent on this:  his full-time salary comes from the WPRI. Imagine if the newspaper ran two columns a week by someone working full-time for a liberal think tank. The outrage from conservative talk radio would be hellacious. Or imagine if the newspaper promoted a liberal columnist as someone who got right-wingers hopping mad. The newspaper wouldn’t dare.

When I worked at the paper, it was common to get complaints from liberals about stories they didn’t like, but it was nothing like the response if conservatives didn’t like a story. You would get more and angrier email, often egged on by conservative talker Charlie Sykes. You can get some feel for that dynamic if you read the comments at jsonline (though I don’t recommend it to anyone). The Journal Sentinel clearly thinks it is viewed as a liberal paper, but the irony is that  much of that reputation has come courtesy of Sykes, an employee of its broadcast company. Yet, as a result, it is now allowing a conservative think tank to subsidize its columnist and advertising his abilities to anger liberals. Not even the old Milwaukee Sentinel would have ever countenanced such an arrangement.

Short Takes

-Lightbourn earns about $193,000 in total compensation and his group’s annual budget is $1.7 million. The group’s funding from Bradley is still significant but “we’re broadening our funding base,” Lightbourn says. He also says the foundation is doing a “deep dive” on the issue of education in Milwaukee and expects an upcoming report will have some very interesting results.

-Despite the efforts of Republicans and Schneider to portray Baldwin in negative terms, the polls continue to show her opponent Tommy Thompson has higher negatives in polls, though the race is tightening up.

Categories: Murphy's Law

6 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Stealth Conservatives”

  1. Stacy Moss says:

    I give up. Information that used to be a molecule of KNOWLEDGE. Not it is spy v. spy. And nothing can add up to anything other than paranoia.

  2. I am not sure want this column said or meant.

  3. The direction of the J-S puzzles me too. If I want the official party line for either the Republican or Democratic parties, I can just go on their web sites.

  4. Sam says:

    This just further convinces me that we need a real left-leaning daily paper in Milwaukee. It’s no coincidence that the healthiest democracies in the world have more than one paper (on if you look at the US as a whole, a ton- the majority with more or less the same viewpoint). Liberal rich folks out there, here’s your chance…

  5. Thanks, Bruce.

    It seems that the local conservative media web gets more tangled and incestuous every day, as we learn that the Journal Broadcast Group, part of the Journal Sentinel’s parent corporation, will be creating a new Internet empire for Charlie Sykes. Will the JS editorialize against it? Will Schneider end up working for everyone? Will the Bradley Foundation soon be the foundation of everything?

    The state of our journalism grows rotten. Glad you’re still around.

  6. DHRichards says:

    It might be time for another daily in Milwaukee. Ever since they got rid of (their own) competition, they don’t cover the news… mostly spin. I think they have gotten much more conservative in their editorials and their coverage, as they are looking for a buyer.

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