Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Why Burke’s Loss Was Inevitable

Burke's impact as a candidate was so negligible that Walker was almost running against himself. He had to hope the Walker lovers outnumbered his haters.

By - Nov 4th, 2014 10:20 am
Mary Burke and Gov. Scott Walker.

Mary Burke and Gov. Scott Walker.

You might call Mary Burke the invisible candidate. It’s almost as though there was no one running against Gov. Scott Walker. Walker is so polarizing that he completely overshadowed his Democratic challenger, leaving the governor in the position of running against himself. He had to hope the Walker that people love got at least one more vote than the Walker people hate. Mission accomplished.

The Marquette Law School poll has surveyed voters nine times since mid-May and its stunning how little things changed. Back in May the two candidates were dead even among registered voters, with 46 percent each. Yet at that point fully 51 percent of respondents said they didn’t know enough about Burke to have an opinion of her. But it didn’t matter. For most voters it was just about one question: are you for or against Walker?

Five months later, little had changed. The final MU poll, released last Wednesday, found 83 percent of people had by now formed an opinion of Burke and most of them (45 percent) had a negative opinion, compared to just 22 percent in May. In short, the percent of people with an unfavorable opinion of Burke had more than doubled. Yet among registered voters she was in basically the same place, with 45 percent of the vote, compared to 46 percent for Walker.

Most of the drama of the MU polls has been all about its projection of which voters are likely to turn out, Democrat or Republican, and how that would drive the final vote. And that went up and down, from Burke with a 2.1 percent advantage among likely voters in late August to Walker’s seven point advantage in the final poll.

But meanwhile the survey results varied far less among registered voters: In the nine MU polls since May, Walker averaged a slim 1.3 percent lead over Burke. For all the hot air expended and all the gazillions spent, the needle never seemed to budge in this race.

The St. Norbert College Strategic Research Institute took a different approach in its poll, completed on October 21, and asked an open-ended question as to why people favored either candidate. Some 40 percent of those favoring Walker did so because they like him, his policies, his values while another 22 percent favored the governor because of his policies on the budget/deficit/taxes.

In Burke’s case a stunning 61 percent of those who favored her did so because they don’t like Walker and his policies. Burke herself barely registered, with only 7 percent of those favoring her saying it was because they liked Burke or her policies and just five percent of her supporters backing her because of her business background/experience. Burke’s business resume, supposedly her great advantage, had a negligible impact in the race.

The latter was probably a help to Burke in withstanding the “October Surprise” of the campaign, the accusations that she had been forced out of Trek because of questions about her performance. Given how few people were voting for her because of her business background, this story may not hurt her much.

That aside, however, Burke’s invisibility as a candidate was a huge problem. If most of your supporters are only turning out because they hate Walker, that suggests you may do very well with Democrats, but not very well with independents. It’s possible for a Democrat to win without carrying the majority of independents, but only if there is a huge turnout of Democrats as in the 2012 election. Clearly that didn’t happen. In fact, it looks like the Republican enthusiasm and turnout surpassed that of Democrats. That’s what happens when their candidate is so weak.

The national experts who do a meta-analysis of all the polls all showed a tight race, but all showed Walker likely to win. had Walker up by 2.6 percentage points and with a 75 percent chance of winning, meaning Burke had a 25 percent chance of victory.  The Princeton Election Consortium had Walker up by 1 percent with a 67 percent chance of winning.

Real Clear Politics called it a toss-up with Walker at 47.5 percent and Burke at 45.3 percent.  The liberal leaning Daily Kos had Walker up 51.6 percent to 48.4 percent.

They all may have underestimated Walker’s margin, but they all picked the right horse.

Bias Toward MU Poll?

On October 22 the St. Norbert poll was released showing a very tight race, with Walker leading Burke among likely voters, 47 percent to 46 percent. The media barely noticed.

One week later MU released its final poll showing a seven point advantage for Walker and the media across the state jumped all over the poll. Five days later, YouGov, which has been polling every Senate, House and governor’s race for the CBS News/New York Times Battleground Tracker, released a poll showing only a 2 point margin for Walker. There was barely a ripple in the media in response.

Why does MU dominate the reporting on polls?  No group polls on the election as frequently as Marquette, so that certainly helps it. Then there’s the pedigree of Charles Franklin, who does the polls for Marquette. Franklin co-founded, which became an award-winning site for nonpartisan polling analysis and has been a member of the ABC News election-night analysis team since 2002.

St. Norbert’s pollster, David Wegge, is far less known, but founded its survey center in 1983 and has been doing polls of Wisconsin voters since 1980. “I have a lot of respect for them,” says Franklin. “They’ve been polling Wisconsin for a long time and have a good track record.”

Franklin points to St. Norbert’s rating by, which ranks the accuracy of polling operations across the nation. Among some 200 pollsters, St. Norbert gets a “B plus” grade while Marquette gets only a “B” and YouGov gets a “C.”  In short, there’s no reason to think Franklin is necessarily doing more accurate polls.

But one of Marquette Law School’s huge advantages is its connection with the state’s largest newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The law school now gives fellowships to reporters from the JS, which have gone to Craig Gilbert and others. The law school hired former JS reporter Alan Borsuk as a senior fellow, but Borsuk meanwhile continues to do a weekly column with the newspaper.

Good things have resulted from this partnership: For instance, Gilbert has had the freedom to do some interesting research and stories on the partisan divide in Wisconsin. But the cozy relationship here might also help explain why the MU poll gets front-page headlines in the JS while the St. Norbert or YouGov poll are barely reported. And because the JS is the state’s largest newspaper, its decision to give MU so much prominence naturally tends to bring along the rest of the media.

That’s a problem. I suspect Franklin would agree that no one pollster should be so dominant in this state. As the research of Nate Silver (for and others has repeatedly shown, every pollster has certain strengths and weaknesses and you get much more accurate results with an analysis that combines all the polls. You also get more information: St. Norbert’s asked interesting questions that weren’t included in the MU poll.

A combined analysis also tends to smooth out the results, so there is less of those dramatic jumps or declines in how the candidates are doing. The media’s fixation on MU’s polls gives readers more drama — and helps cement the JS partnership with MU — but it’s not always the best way to serve readers.

Short Takes

-One thing St. Norbert’s survey asked and MU didn’t was how many voters supported libertarian Robert Burke, and the answer was about one percent. That might explain why a Republican-connected group was running ads touting the fact that Burke supports the legalization of marijuana. Since Mary Burke only supports medical marijuana, some zealous pot advocates might have switched their vote from one Burke to the other.

-St. Norbert’s poll also found a majority felt Walker won his debates with Burke, by 47 to 33 percent, though 60 percent of respondents didn’t watch either debate.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

39 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Why Burke’s Loss Was Inevitable”

  1. PMD says:

    Walker will win easily. I say 5 points when all is said and done. GOP turnout will be much stronger. That should allow Schimel to win as well. Not going to be a good day for Democrats, here or nationwide.

  2. Tyrell Track Master says:


    That said it’s looking like another dark day for WI and the country at large. But for god’s sake prove me wrong!!!

    By the way, you guys are using a huge photo at the top of the page scaled down. Not good for loading speed! Optimize!

  3. PMD says:

    Man this place sure is quiet. Everyone must be voting.

  4. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    walker has saved us billions, got the unions out of the way of the teachers and kids. His dumping of the halfast train saved us several billion, putting people into Badger care we can now cover everyone without getting buried by the Fed that always renigs. Kept us out of the exchanges saved us a ton. From here we can go forward and redo the UW system so that we do not dump on our families big debts, Schimel wants to work on crime for Milwaukee if they will just put the thugs in jail. We need to fix MPS, bust it up.

  5. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    My shoulder to cry on!!!

  6. tim haering says:

    Bruce, if you’d written this column last year when I encouraged you to, you’d have been hotter than Dick Morris in 2011-12 – until bear-hugging Romney ended his 15 months of fame. UWM Prof. Lee nailed it a few months back when he called Burke “the perfect no-name Democratic campaign.” He never repeated that remark after the upbraiding he got from his fellow Dems. I bet it would be hard to even find that quote on the internet now. Anyhow, I admit my predictions were wrong. I said Walker would win 53% and Burke would cry at her concession. Maybe I will be wrong again as I predict Fred Risser will resign and tap Mary Burke as his successor. Mary Burke could be a good candidate next time with a little lawmaking on her resume.

  7. Bruce Murphy says:

    Actually, Tim, I have written before about the weakness of Burke as a candidate. As for the column you encouraged me to write… let’s just say it’s not the sort of column I would have written about any candidate.

  8. PMD says:

    I was not surprised that Walker won, but one thing did surprise me. Burke did better than Walker when voters were asked which candidate cares more about people like them. So that means a large number of voters actually voted against the person they believe cares more about people like them?

    The enthusiasm gap did Burke in. People who love Walker LOVE Walker. They’d take a bullet for him. I never came across a single person who felt that way about Burke. Hard to drum up strong turnout in a scenario like that.

  9. tim haering says:

    Bruce, I take it back. It was dear departed Mike Simonson to whom I suggested Mary Burke’s campaign was doomed. Sorry.

  10. Allison says:

    Pardon me while I gloat, but I actually thought Burke ran a good campaign, given the fact she was completely unqualified to be Governor. The Democrat leadership (Mike Tate, etc) has forced poor candidates down the throats of the left in this state. How’s that working for you? Maybe time to try something new?

    Also, what needs to go is the tired old line that Scott walker has divided the state. Clearly the great state of Wisconsin is behind the Governor. Clearly they support his agenda and his vision. Any other interpretation of these resounding election results is false. He has been elected statewide three times in four years. Even Ed Schultz agrees with that.

    The Left threw everything they had at him again, they said Walker was their number one target, and they failed. Again.

  11. PMD says:

    So Allison, according to your reasoning, after he decisively won reelection in 2012, the United States of America was not divided, rather it was completely united behind Barack Obama? Any other interpretation of that resounding election is false?

  12. Chris Byhre says:

    The headline should be, Why Mary Burke’s Loss was so Enjoyable, or Wonderful, or Beneficial to the citizens of this state. Bruce, the Journal Sentinel, the Milwaukee DA (and his wife) and so many others have wallowed in the mud trying to bring down this Governor, with zero success. It’s nice to know that good guys do finish first, there is a reward for doing the right thing and that negativity does not work. It’s a glorious day in Wisconsin as this is what Democracy looks like.

  13. PMD says:

    Wisconsin’s governor’s race was deemed the most negative in the country. Only the most rabid partisan with their blinders on believes only one candidate was responsible for that negativity. Both sides wallowed in the mud.

  14. Paul G. Hayes says:

    Bruce Murphy’s is an excellent analysis. At some point early in the campaign both parties took a dive on some important issues, the most important of which was the Walker/Kleefish/Van Hollen/Grothman war on women’s choice, abortion, birth control, gay rights and other religiously-inspired intrusions upon individuals. These remain major issues. Why the Democrats didn’t push it, which would have brought more Burke votes from women and even some sensible men, is beyond me. The Democratic Party needs to be shaken up, and then some.

  15. Chris Byhre says:

    Deemed by whom? Is someone officially in charge of ‘deeming’ such things? I simply pointed out people on the losing/left who are familiar with this approach. I deem Burke’s final few weeks of dark and desperate campaign vitriol as very negative and in the end it was nice to see it fail.

  16. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Hayes your are hallucinating, there is no war on women. The GOP has been more tuned into women for years ie: abortion. Women especially mothers oppose abortion more than anyone. women are in far more leadership positions in the GOP than in the dems who keep them from power, along with blacks and Hispanics. Only white, Lefty racists allowed. As for contraception I have yet to see one woman on the Conservative side that wants to ban contraceptives except for some strict Catholic women who agree with Catholic doctrine..
    as for divided. the Capitol has alway been didived ecpet in times of national emergencies. thea is how the left set uop the govt. in 1783.

  17. PMD says:

    So yeah the partisan blinders are working well. If you believe only one side was negative prior to yesterday’s election, I have a great deal on a beautiful bridge for you……

  18. PMD says:

    WCD, you are making stuff up again. According to Gallup, 50% of women are pro-choice. And if the GOP is so in tune with women, why did the GOP win the female vote in only 2 out of the 10 most competitive senate races yesterday?

  19. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Bruce, you missed main story: Dems looked at money, and Ron Johnson race where a candidate from nowhere, that really did not say much was elevated to Senate. He came from nowhere, was complete media, won the primary with only 6 weeks to go, ran around state making stock speeches and had a lot of great commercials. won.
    They thought that they could do same with Burke but did not realize that she had so many holes in her life that could not be explained. She also had to campaign for over a year so those all came out while with Johnson it was bang, bang, over.

  20. Andy says:

    PMD, where/when did Gallop show 50% of women were pro-choice? Everything I’ve found is quite different. As you can see here:

    In this case, women believe abortion should be illegal in all or most circumstances 57% of the time vs legal in all or most circumstances 40% of the time.

    To answer your second question, maybe it’s because of the false rhetoric that conservatives are against women that the GOP, in relation to women voters, “only won 2 of the 10” senate races.

  21. PMD says:

    From May 2014:

    Women = “Pro-Choice” 50% and “Pro-Life” 41%.

    And yeah we disagree about “false rhetoric.”

  22. Andy says:

    Hm, appear you’re right, the latest does say that. Looks like it’s really a statistical tie though, but I’ll give you this one.

    I find it interesting that not everyone who believes abortion should always or almost always be illegal considers themselves pro-life.

  23. PMD says:

    Yeah that is interesting.

    Also according to Gallup, 21% believe it should be illegal in all circumstances. 78% say always legal or legal under certain circumstances, so isn’t it fair to say that most people are in fact pro-choice?

  24. Andy says:

    No. I consider myself pro-life yet I would allow cases when a mother’s health/life is at risk (including mental health risks from carrying a child from a case of rape or incest). That would put me in the “most” category.

  25. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Andy, have been around hospitals all my life and the cases you talk about just do not exist. Modern medicine seldom, if ever, has childbirth jeopardize mothers. In case of reported rapes or incest that is taken care of immediately.

  26. PMD says:

    Of course they exist WCD. There you go again making stuff up.

    -“The maternal death rate in the U.S. is creeping upward — to more than double what it was 25 years ago.”

    -“The rate of severe complications during and after delivery have also doubled in the last decade, according to a 2012 federal study. Near-misses, where a woman nearly dies, increased by 27 percent. That means each year in the U.S., about 700 women die of pregnancy-related complications and 52,000 experience emergencies such as acute renal failure, shock, respiratory distress, aneurysms and heart surgery. An additional 34,000 barely avoid death.”

    Cripes man quit making stuff up.

  27. Andy says:

    PMD, 700 deaths of mothers from pregnancy-related complications says nothing about how many of those could have been foreseen, how many would have even contemplated ending the life of the baby, or what the odds are for survivable.

    Regardless… 700 pales in comparison to over a million babies killed in the womb each year. So talking about health related abortions is a distraction from the real discussion.

  28. PMD says:

    I was refuting WCD’s contention that health risks never happen Andy. That is clearly not even remotely true.

  29. tim haering says:

    What I asked Simonson, after he interviewed her early in her campaign: Did you ask her if she’s gay? He said no, that would be like asking someone if they cheat on their spouse. I said adultery could get you sued for divorce, and adultery is still illegal – there’s no crime in being gay. Everyone is thinking it. Here is this attractive woman with no husband ever, no kids, no significant other. We all thought the same about Herb when he first ran. But Burke lacks Kohl’s enormous wealth and sterling public profile as Bucks owner with the iconic family name. And she didn’t have a killer slogan like “Nobody’s governor but yours.”

    I think that missing piece of her personal profile kept male voters at a great distance. In a Baldwin-Pocan milieu, it’s a natural question, however ballsy. You know her campaign had her prepped to answer it. But in this PC world, nobody dared ask it. The GOP even held Rush back. They may have calculated this to draw the male vote, also figuring If she was gay, she would have been WI’s first woman governor and the country’s first lesbian governor. Voters love firsts. The GOP benefited from leaving it alone.

    Anyhow, now you can all pummel me.

  30. Mike says:

    I think that the lesson learned here is that you have to run a good candidate to win an election like this. Simply put, Mary Burke was not a good candidate. Not only was her resume thin, but she failed to articulate what she’d do differently than Walker. You are not going to beat a good politician with Tom Barrett and Mary Burke.

    The problem with the Democratic party in Wisconsin right now is who are the good leaders? Ron Kind might be viable, but he sort of shrinks in comparison to some of our other Congressmen who are in leadership positions. Gwen Moore? There’s just not a lot of good options for them right now.

  31. Bill Kurtz says:

    Let me compliment WCD for pointing out something most conservatives won’t: Democratic leadership saw the success of a “generic Republican” businessperson with no record to attack, and decided to find one of their own. And as he pointed out, Republicans had more than a year to try to dig up negative stuff about Burke, while Dems had only six months to do the same to Johnson. Both, as he aptly put it, both “came from nowhere, did not say much, was complete media, ran around the state making stock speeches.”
    Most other conservatives railed against Burke as a supposedly unqualified “mystery candidate.” And Johnson wasn’t?

  32. Mike says:


    I think had the Democrats run a real business person they would have had a real good chance to win. If it was John Burke instead of Mary I think Walker loses. Had Ron Johnson had as many gaps in his resume as Mary Burke has, he would have been soundly defeated by Russ Feingold.

    One also has to wonder if the clownish way the Democrats in the legislature is coming back to haunt them. The fleeing the State, yelling “Shame. Shame” and in general looking like a bunch of lunatics has probably cost them. Which Democrat from the legislature would be in a position to run for state wide office right now? Peter Barca may have the best resume, but all someone would have to do is show him foaming at the mouth when Act 10 was passed and there go the independents you need to win. Their actions may have played well with the base, but I think it puts the players in that off to the fringe.

  33. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Bill, actually they only had from the primary third week in Sept. Ron did not decide to go till after july 4th.
    You are right, a well thought of business guy with record of community involvement would have been tough.
    Bill, are w writing that book.

  34. Bill Kurtz says:

    Mike, the Democrats ran the campaign you wanted them to: Polite to the point of prissiness. (Apparently there’s no limit to how far right Republicans go, as long as they come across like insurance salesmen.)
    How did that prissy campaign work out? If you’re going to lose you might as well go down fighting.

  35. Mike says:


    I’m actually a Walker supporter and just giving my 2 cents on the Democrat’s strategy. Ultimately, you need to be able to articulate how your vision is better than the one we currently have if you’re going to oust an incumbent. Mary Burke never really laid out anything other than she’s not Scott Walker. That’s not going to get it done. Couple that with the fact that she may have had a hard time serving all 4 years based on her work history (or lack thereof) and it’s a recipe to lose.

    Then when they go negative it’s with stupid stuff like “Walker wants to poison your water” and the focus on issues like minimum wage, gay marriage, free contraceptions etc. Those issues might be REALLY important to some people, but I don’t think their the top issues on most people’s mind when selecting a governor.

    Then again, who else were the Democrats going to run? They don’t really have anyone that’s going to swing independents right now.

  36. Bill Kurtz says:

    Mike, sorry if you thought I thought you were against Walker. Your comments, though, raise questions for me: Just which issues are Democrats supposed to oppose Walker on, and where should they throw in the towel? (What makes me wonder are so many of the gloats from other Walker supporters, from Christian Schneider on down, who basically seem to ridicule opposition to any Walker position, and advised Democrats to become a “me too” party.) In fairness, you seem a lot more thoughtful than the gloaters.
    You’re right there weren’t many other options among candidates. Burke did try to articulate a better vision (her talk about cooperation). There were several areas to criticize Walker in terms of long-term vision. (Will relentless focus on holding down teacher salaries cause a shortage in 10 years? Down the road, how will we pay for his borrowing to continue a road-building spree?) But it’s always hard to warn that something’s going to become a problem in 10-15 years. Few people of any inclination tend to look that far ahead.

  37. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Burke was empty suit. She did not offer much idea or direction for anything. People are gloating because all of the hate that was directed at Scott for making public employees pay far less than the rest of us or for their health or pension.
    “Why should public employees get more and better salaries, pensions, vacations, health, dental, days off, holidays, sick days and on and on and you cannot get fired for laziness or incompetence”.
    No one wants to hold down teacher salaries, we want to reward those that actually teach kids to read and fire those that cannot. For too long we have seen costs of education go up twice or more faster than inflation but the result, especially in MPS or madison go down. I do not know why parents have not rebelled.

  38. PMD says:

    If Burke did try to articulate a better vision, it wasn’t much of an effort. Her campaign seemed to be heavy on vague ideas and generalities, and light on substance and specific policy ideas.

    It’s a great soundbite to say we just fire teachers who can’t teach kids to read, but it doesn’t reflect reality. I assume you’re suggesting some kind of merit-based system. Terrible idea typically coming from someone who has never worked as a teacher (and one’s spouse being a teacher does not count; it’s not even close to being the same thing).

  39. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    More stupid excuses, either do the job, educate the kids or get the hell out. Around the world people teach kids to read and here all you get is whiney left that says it just cannot be done. corrected you mean that the lame brained teachers union and the left cannot get it done.
    Why don’t you brainless boobs sit in 11th grade classes and explain to the kids why they are illiterate.
    PMD I have never see any kind of a solution to a problem, just stupid comments about the Koch brothers, that was really big failure, and the talking points. No wonder the public has tossed your tripe out.

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