By Devin Blake Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published Oct 30, 2022 at 10:23 AM Photography: Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

Inflation is the top concern for Wisconsin voters as the midterm elections near, according to the latest poll conducted by Marquette University Law School. But public schools and gun violence are not far behind.

For people in the city, there is an overall “sense that the economy is not where it was pre-COVID and things cost more and things aren’t running as smoothly as they used to, and there’s general frustration with that,” said Paru Shah, professor of political science at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Although inflation peaked in June, standard ways of measuring it indicate that it is still historically high.

The consumer price index, or CPI, is one of the most common measures of inflation and tracks changes in how much households are spending on basic goods and services.

The CPI was 8.1% higher in September than it was last year.

According to a recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment in the Milwaukee area was also higher in August compared to August 2021.  

Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, said the second- and third-highest ranking interests in the October poll – public schools and gun violence – are extremely close in ranking to inflation, however. 

“Those three are very close together, just a point difference,” Franklin said, which is “well inside the margin of error. I would be pretty cautious about saying that one of those three are noticeably higher than the others.”

Looking at the polls conducted by Marquette in 2022 as a whole, gun violence ranked highest, with 87% of respondents saying they are “very concerned” about it.

This was followed by crime with 74% and inflation with 69%.

Taking it with a grain of salt

Kathleen Dolan, distinguished professor of political science at UWM, said it is often a chicken-or-egg problem when it comes to accurately analyzing the interests of voters. 

“It’s not surprising – those are the ones dominating the national conversation. … It’s hard for us to know if they are really motivating people’s interests in these elections, or are these the things that we are hearing the most about,” Dolan said.

The discrepancy between the reality of an issue and people’s concern over it is proof of this phenomenon, Dolan added.

“We know that inflation is bad in the United States, but we know that it wasn’t necessarily singularly caused by (Gov.) Tony Evers. … We know that crime is increasing but not as rapidly as people believe that it has.”

Another important reason to read the results of the Marquette polls with some caution, as it relates to voters in the city of Milwaukee, is the sample size. Marquette surveyed people throughout Wisconsin, of which Milwaukee residents comprise only 8%.

“We simply do not have enough cases to say anything (about Milwaukee) with confidence,” explained Franklin.

But the fact that Milwaukee is deeply and historically Democratic does provide a firm basis for analyzing how people in the city will vote.

The political party that a voter identifies with has much greater significance for how a person votes than their interest in any particular topic, Dolan said.

“Two sides are taking very different policy perspectives and the things that people care about become more closely aligned with party identity,” she said.

“By a large piece, we are used to hearing … about the gender gap or attitudes of racial groups,” but the party identity gap “is the biggest of the identity gaps we can measure. Party identification really dwarves everything,” Dolan added.

Where the candidates stand on issues

To address inflation, Tim Michels, Republican candidate for governor, proposed lowering corporate and income taxes, eliminating other taxes entirely and increasing U.S. energy production.

Consistent with this proposal, incumbent U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican, has called for reducing deficit spending. He said federal aid that goes to “paying workers to sit on the sidelines” should be done away with. 

The Michels campaign has also framed the problem of education as a part of the larger problem of inflation.

“Wisconsinites face skyrocketing inflation, shrinking retirement savings and the prospect of tough economic times ahead if we don’t change course,” Michels said. That is why there must be an increase in “opportunities for K-12 students to participate in hands-on internships, youth apprenticeships, and programs such as Dual Enrollment” as well as an increase in spending on “the state’s vocational technical training to enhance the hands-on skills of the Wisconsin workforce.”

When Michels discusses education outright, he advances a vague but broad expansion of the school choice system.

Johnson has also stated that he supports a system that emphasizes the importance of “parental rights” when choosing schools.

Michels plans to address crime and violence with more money for police, “particularly in our most dangerous neighborhoods” as well as with a “state aid reduction for those who attempt to ‘defund the police.’”

Johnson called for a similar increase in police spending, because there is a “hostility toward law enforcement promoted by leaders of the Democrat Party and the radical left. They are one result of Democrat policies like catch-and-release at the border, low bail or no bail and soft-on-crime treatment of criminals ...” 

Their Democratic counterparts are united in their opposition to these sorts of solutions to problems surrounding inflation, crime and public schools.

To address inflation, particularly the rising costs of goods, Evers, a Democrat, and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, said they will provide various forms of tax relief specifically for the working and middle class.

Evers and Barnes both framed crime as an issue not simply about police spending.

“When our communities do not have opportunities, gun violence and gun crimes are what fills the void,” said Barnes. “Rebuilding the middle class is how we make our communities safer. It means investing in good paying jobs, education and child care.”

Evers has laid out a similar diagnosis and solution.

“Improving public safety requires connecting the dots to address the root causes of violence and finding local solutions,” he said. For this reason, more money should be spent on “services like after-school and out-of-school programs” as well as “additional programming in high-crime areas.”

Evers increased spending on public schools during his first term and promised to continue this spending in his second.