Why Russ Could Beat Rojo
As the polls suggest, Johnson hasn't really tried to connect with voters. That could be fatal.
Ron Johnson was the ideal candidate for 2010. At the height of the Great Recession voters were angry and looking to throw the bums out, and what better candidate than Johnson, the owner of an Oshkosh-based plastics manufacturing company who had absolutely no political experience. He could portray himself as the ultimate outsider and had no record the incumbent Senator Russ Feingold could attack. Johnson also exuded a forthright, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington persona, the regular guy, common-sense alternative to Rhodes scholar Feingold. Johnson was good looking, well-spoken, taller than Feingold (always an advantage) and his quiet eyes projected a genuineness, a sense that he really cared about these issues.
Yet Johnson has now served more than four years, and has somehow squandered those advantages. The regular guy who seemed to be on the voters’ side has morphed into the state’s lecturer-in-chief, whose default mode is to suggest the voters need to bone up a little more on the issues. “I realize a lot of people don’t pay attention,” he sort of complained to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Craig Gilbert.
They also can’t see the issues as objectively as Rojo can. “I think the voters of Wisconsin … if they take a look at things objectively, will start realizing that big government… isn’t working so good,” he told Gilbert, and then repeated his message later: “Again, if they just look at things objectively, decades of liberal policies… that Sen. Feingold supports, they haven’t worked.”
Feingold has already jumped all over Johnson’s style, telling Gilbert the senator interacts with constituents by “lecturing” rather than “listening.” Feingold each year did listening sessions in all 72 counties in the state, or 432 sessions per term; it was a key part of his approach, and the wonky policy guy made a point of listening, not expounding, to constituents. By contrast, he noted, Johnson “does a lecture, he does a PowerPoint about the deficit, which of course is an important issue, but he doesn’t open himself to hearing about the daily realities that Wisconsin middle-class families and workers face.”
That may help explain why Johnson has failed — miserably — to win over the majority of voters in Wisconsin. Not once has a poll found at least 50 percent approve of his performance. From the spring of 2011 through this spring, the St. Norbert poll measured support for Johnson on five occasions and the percent of respondents who approved of him averaged a dismal 38 percent and ranged as high as 43 percent. Johnson never got near to a majority of voters approving of him. Meanwhile, the percent of voters disapproving averaged 29 percent and ranged as low as 22 percent.
If anything, the results of the Marquette University Law School poll, which measured approval for Johnson nine times since his election, are even worse: on average, about 32 percent of respondents approved and 28 percent disapproved. (The two pollsters ask the question slightly differently.)
What’s perhaps most striking about the results is the high percentage of people with no opinion on a senator in office this long. Johnson is known to average voters, if at all, for questioning and getting dressed down by Hillary Clinton when grilling her about Benghazi, which was arguably a draw and, in any case, not a pocketbook issue for voters.
Meawhile, the MU poll twice measured support for Feingold, this spring and in the fall of 2014, and an average of 44 percent of respondents had a favorable impression and 29 percent had unfavorable impression. More than four years after booting him from office, far more voters feel they know Feingold, and far more have a favorable opinion of him, than for Johnson. That is very bad news for the incumbent.
Johnson ran against Feingold on Obamacare, and since this was before it was actually implemented, scare stories about it were easy to peddle. But now it has been implemented, has a constituency of supporters and facts on the ground that will make it far harder for Johnson to demonize. Similarly, Johnson ran in 2010 against the Obama stimulus plan before it had any impact, but the revived economy could make Feingold’s support of it look much wiser today.
Feingold has already indicated he will accuse Johnson of “always siding with those with the big cash (and) the special interests.” Unlike many Clintonite Democrats, Feingold has always opposed free trade agreements, arguing they export jobs and are “a raw deal for workers.” That has helped make him look like the friend of working class voters. Johnson is a business owner who supports more such agreements, and that could easily make him look uncaring.
Feingold was the lone senator who voted against the Patriot Act, and can now point to the result, the wholesale collection of data on Americans through their phones. Johnson continues to support this, saying its “information that we’re going to need to keep this nation safe.” Johnson’s stance on the issues, from the need to cutback government spending on things like entitlements to allowing worker “dislocations” caused by free trade to supporting NSA’s wholesale invasion of citizens’ privacy, is all about voters taking their medicine because it may be good for them in the long run — always a harder sell.
Johnson is going to hammer Feingold as a big-government Democrat and career politician, but that argument doesn’t work quite as neatly when you are now the representative of government and have a voting record, most of which involves some kind of government spending. Feingold, meanwhile, will portray Johnson as one of the many millionaire senators whose voting record shows he doesn’t care about the middle class. Such arguments will be easier to make because Johnson has failed to really connect to voters, leaving a blank page on which Feingold can write his own anti-Rojo narrative.