Just in time for the 2012 election season, a new polling program is set to debut at Marquette Law School, and it promises to take the pulse of Wisconsin voters frequently and thoroughly.
Charles Franklin, whose polling expertise and political acumen have made him the go-to-guy for electoral commentary, is taking a year-long leave from UW-Madison's political science department to head up the effort, which Marquette is billing as the "largest independent polling project in state history to study voter attitudes."
Franklin, co-founder of Pollster.com and a former co-director of the Big Ten Poll, says the first Marquette Law School Poll will likely be released late next month, after the Jan. 17 deadline for submitting petitions to recall Gov. Scott Walker.
The program will probably release 12 to 15 polls over the course of the year. Franklin says this means they'll be able to "dig into subject areas that rarely get that much time" in other surveys.
The Marquette polls will measure public opinion on the presidential race, U.S. Senate face-offs and any recall elections, and explore attitudes toward educational policy, health care reform, natural resources and pension reform.
"There are a host of things we'll be able to look at from time to time to paint a much deeper and broader picture of how people feel about the direction the state is headed in, both good and bad," says Franklin.
"It's not a state of one mind," he adds of Wisconsin, a perennial swing state in elections. "It's also not a state of two minds. There are a lot more mixed feelings in both parties."
Many have questioned why a law school is getting into the polling business, Franklin says. But he notes Marquette Law School has already become a "public policy crossroads" by hosting political debates and issue forums. The polling project is an extension of that, he says.
Franklin says Wisconsin is poorly served by the limited polling currently done. Most media organizations are no longer willing or can't afford to conduct polls. And the few polls done by partisan organizations are quickly dismissed by critics as biased, even when they are solid.
Franklin is under no illusion that his polls will escape a similar fate. "Whoever is trailing in our polls," he predicts, "will be unhappy."
From protests to politics
The Capitol protests are now officially responsible for launching at least one political career.
Fitchburg resident Jenni Dye, 30, whose prolific tweeting from the massive Capitol protests last winter netted her thousands of followers, is running for Dane County Board. (Mahlon Mitchell, the president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin who became a celebrity during the Capitol protests, is flirting with a run for governor but hasn't committed.)
Dye, an attorney, made so many fans with her tweets that some grateful followers banded together to purchase her an i-Pad.
"The more I tweeted, the more people asked questions and wanted to know what was happening," she says. "So many people wanted to be there and couldn't that I became their way to get information from the ground."
Dye says she started thinking about running for office during this time.
"I actually remember standing in the Rotunda and thinking maybe this wasn't enough."
Dye says she was touched by seeing the "very real impact" of Walker's policies on people she cared about.
Dye is challenging incumbent Jack Martz, who has been in office since 2002. She intends to concentrate on issues of economic justice, community building and sustainable development. Dye predicts that her social media experience will serve her well as a politician.
"When I started [tweeting] in February I made a commitment that I would respond to anybody who made a comment. Having that dialogue and really trying to engage rather than be a one-way source of information is exactly what candidates and elected officials should be doing."
Receiving a gubernatorial appointment to fill a judicial vacancy usually gives the appointee a leg up when it's time to run to keep the seat. Even a few months on the bench can help with name recognition at the polls.
But there was some speculation over whether anyone wanting either of the two open seats on the Dane County Circuit Court would seek an appointment from Gov. Scott Walker. This, after all, is Dane County, the bluest of blue counties.
But Walker did make two appointments to the bench last week: Roger Allen, an attorney for the city of Madison, to Circuit Court Branch 11 and Frank Remington, a former assistant attorney general who serves as the municipal judge for Shorewood Hills, to Circuit Court Branch 8. Both reject the suggestion that Walker's appointment could prove a liability.
"The appointment is an opportunity to serve the people of Dane County as an independent, thoughtful and impartial judge, and the diverse group of my more than 250 endorsers - including JoAnne Kloppenburg, Peg Lautenschlager, Mayor Soglin, Kelli Thompson - are a tremendous vote of confidence about my ability to be that kind of judge," Remington wrote in an email.
Allen sounded a similar note: "Any fears [people] have regarding the context of being appointed by this governor will be allayed by people who really know me."
"I didn't seek this office because of who the governor was," Allen adds. "I sought it because it was the right time professionally and personally for me to make this move."
So far no one has registered to challenge Remington. Ellen Berz, a public defender, and Frank Sullivan, an assistant attorney general with the state Department of Justice, have registered with the Government Accountability Board to run against Allen.
The primary election is Feb. 21 and the general election April 3, the same date as Wisconsin's presidential primaries.
Debt-free? Not so much
A recent fundraising letter for Gov. Scott Walker made a surprising claim about his accomplishments in office: "We've turned a $3.6 billion Jim Doyle deficit into a $300 million surplus. Wisconsin is debt-free for the first time in a decade," the Nov. 23 letter from Friends of Scott Walker read.
Wisconsin, in fact, continues to carry billions of dollars of debt.
According to a June 2011 paper from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Wisconsin owed $6.8 billion in general obligation debt as of December 2010. The state also owes $3.02 billion in revenue bonding, according to the bureau. These figures will be higher when new numbers are issued in late December, says Al Runde, a Fiscal Bureau analyst. That is because previously authorized bonds will be issued this year, new debt has been incurred, and some debt principal has been deferred, he explains.
Gov. Walker's budget bill authorized the state to issue $2.15 billion of new general obligation and revenue bonding, though the Legislature knocked that down to $1.73 billion, says Runde.
The governor's budget additionally restructured current debt to "roll over" or defer principal amounts, which means the state reduces current payments but will end up owing more in the long run.
According to Runde, it was the second "largest annual amount of debt restructuring to date."
A Walker campaign spokeswoman could not immediately comment.