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Public-Employee Unions in Wisconsin: Less Popular than Obama?

There's no way that State EdWatch could avoid featuring a Wisconsin blog post on the eve of the June 5 gubernatorial recall election. The latest numbers from Public Policy Polling, covered extensively by now, show GOP Gov. Scott Walker holding a small lead over Democratic challenger Tom Barrett, 50 percent to 47 percent, in a poll conducted and released over the weekend. But let's take a look at a different poll—and at a more specific political issue.

The latest Marquette University Law School poll, which is one of the go-to, in-state polls for recall observers, has an interesting statistic on the perception of public- and private-sector employee unions. Given the ardent political activism of the Wisconsin Education Association Council and other unions last winter in opposing Walker's legislation affecting unions (taking away most collective-bargaining rights and requiring public employees to pay more for benefits), and the unions' success in finding enough people to sign a recall petition, one might believe unions enjoy both clout and fairly strong popularity in The Badger State.

Not so, says Marquette. In its May 23-26 poll, only 40 percent of those surveyed said they had a favorable view of public-sector unions, while 45 percent viewed them unfavorably. Meanwhile, in the same poll, 44 percent said they had a favorable view of private-sector unions, compared with 35 percent who viewed those unions unfavorably. Those ratings remain essentially unchanged from March.

What accounts for this relatively poor showing for public-sector unions in particular? Well, take a look at the results when Marquette asked people if they approved of Walker's initiatives. Three-quarters of respondents said they approved of the law Walker signed requiring public employees to contribute to their own pensions and pay more for health insurance, while 55 percent approved of the new limits on collective bargaining for state employees that Walker signed into law.

But here's one twist: A plurality of those surveyed, 39 percent, thought the new collective bargaining limitations have "decreased jobs" in Wisconsin. Here's another twist: President Barack Obama received a favorable rating of 55 percent of respondents.

What to make of all this? One thought is that perhaps those surveyed are able to sift and separate their feelings on national and state politics.

Here's another possible explanation, which paraphrases a rule from political satirist P.J. O'Rourke regarding the social sciences: Folks think lots of things. We don't know why. Test on Tuesday.

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