People Power

What if polls ran not just political campaigns but the governments to which they aspire?

Illustration by Evan Hughes.
Illustration by Evan Hughes.
Tighten rules for who can buy guns. Slap drunken drivers with tougher penalties. Cap political contributions. Scrap the Bucks arena deal. Restore funding to the state’s universities. And say goodbye to Obamacare.

For a politician who wants to go full-bore on public support, the above platform would be a good start. Democracy is, after all, a bottom-up process of giving the people what they want. And it’s not hard to discern what the people broadly want. There are polls, and many release their results publicly.

Except there’s also a thing called reality, people called lobbyists, and donors and partisan supporters whose voices may resonate a bit more loudly in the ears of our elected officials. “There are plenty of issues where policymakers are not heeding public opinion for one reason or another,” says Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

It’s just not how it used to be. Except it is. “Policymaking has always been insular,” wrote Matt Grossmann, a Michigan State University political science professor, in a Washington Post piece. But what if it turned itself upside down and hewed closely to the algebra of public opinion? How would our world look different?

No Affordable Care Act
When President Barack Obama signed his sweeping health care reform bill in 2010, otherwise known as “Obamacare,” the public narrowly opposed it, both nationally and in Wisconsin. Polling since then has remained consistent nationally, with opponents outnumbering supporters. Wisconsin has warmed to it, with support from a narrow majority.

No UW System Cuts
An imposing 70 percent of state residents disliked Gov. Scott Walker’s initial plan to slash $300 million from the University of Wisconsin System, according to a Marquette University Law School poll. The final $250 million cut signed into law in July fared a mite better, with only 58 percent of Wisconsinites opposing it.

Source: Gallup.
Source: Gallup.

Tougher Drunken Driving Laws
Another Marquette poll, in the fall of 2014, found a rare trifecta of support among Republicans (58 percent), Democrats (61) and independents (53) for codifying first-time drunk driving as a criminal offense, which would bring Wisconsin in line with every other state. Seeing such universal approval, politicians did the logical thing and changed nothing, perhaps out of fear of criminal justice system costs or losing campaign contributions from the Tavern League and brewing industry.

No Arena Deal
Should the state borrow $150 million to help pay for the new Downtown Milwaukee arena? Nuh-uh. Republicans didn’t want it, with 69 percent opposed. Democrats and independents wanted it even less, with 80 percent and 85 percent in opposition, respectively, according to an April 2015 Marquette poll. So why did it pass? It was the rare issue to enjoy broad support from politicians of both parties, from Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

More Background Checks for Guns
The public overwhelmingly supports expanding who must undergo a criminal background check before buying a gun. A 2013 Marquette poll found that 81 percent of Wisconsin residents support requiring the checks at gun shows and during other private sales. But federal lawmakers have resisted adding these requirements because, as critics charge, the pro-gun lobby remains all-powerful in Washington.

More Limits on Campaign Contributions
Four-fifths of Americans believe money plays an outsized role in political decision-making, and two-thirds say it tilts the playing field toward the wealthy. A proposal to double campaign donation limits in Wisconsin played terribly with the public: just 13 percent supported it, according to a Marquette poll released in November. Yet recent legal changes have tended toward less disclosure of who’s spending and fewer limits on how much.

‘People Power’ appears in the January 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the December issue on newsstands beginning Jan. 4. 

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Daniel Simmons grew up in St. Paul, Minn., the “good twin” city. He started his writing career covering the midsection for the Mayo Clinic. Since then he’s written about human smuggling by sea in San Diego, the coyote invasion of Chicago and the political circus in Madison. He also got to write about his childhood idol, Larry Bird, for Runners World. He’s the managing editor.