What do Wisconsin residents care most about? UW’s La Follette School asked 5,000 of us to find out. – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Voting has always mattered to Wisconsin residents, but thanks to the Electoral College and the fact that our recent elections have been closely divided, the question of who we vote for and why has become increasingly important in the national arena.

Politicos looking for clues about the outcome of the 2024 election will inevitably tune in to our 2022 races for governor and U.S. Senate. As the Washington Post’s Dan Balz noted in a recent column, these races will “no doubt position the state to play a decisive role once again in the next presidential contest.”

Over the next 11 months, pollsters will scrutinize the candidate preferences of Wisconsin voters. But to really understand our state’s politics, it’s helpful to look beyond candidates to focus on the public policy issues Wisconsinites care about. These issues will ultimately inform and explain our choices in the voting booth.

So what are the problems in our state and the nation that worry us the most?

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To find out, my colleagues and I at UW-Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs polled 5,000 Wisconsin residents. Working with the UW Survey Center, we explored public attitudes about policy issues in the state and national arena. The La Follette Policy Poll is not a political poll but instead an investigation of the policy issues that Wisconsin residents care about most deeply.

The poll helps us understand both consensus and divisions in our state, as well as shedding light on the topics that the political parties and candidates ought to be talking about most during 2022.

By mailing an eight-page survey to Wisconsin residents, and offering the option to answer online, we achieved a remarkably high 33% response rate, with survey replies from 71 of the state’s 72 counties, including both urban and rural residents.

The poll was in the field from July 14 to Sept. 24, 2021. Because it draws a sample from across the state, and because it focuses on persistent Wisconsin attitudes rather than attempting to capture a political snapshot, the results provide a revealing portrait of public opinion in a state that will likely affect the national balance of power next November.

People answered questions about a variety of policy issues, ranking each as “not a problem,” “a small problem,” “somewhat of a problem,” “quite a problem” or an “extremely big problem.” This allowed us to zero in on exactly what’s keeping Wisconsin residents up at night.

We found that on every issue, Wisconsinites are more concerned with the national picture than the situation in Wisconsin. For example, 35% consider race relations an extremely big problem in the country at large, but only 24% think that’s true in Wisconsin. Similarly, 39% rank climate change as an extremely big problem nationally, but only 27% feel the same about climate change in the state.

When we break down poll responses by political identification, age and gender, we learn some interesting things about Wisconsin voters. For instance, Democrats are more concerned about climate change and income and wealth distribution, while Republicans are more concerned about the federal deficit and government regulation. And younger respondents rank climate change, health care and income and wealth distribution as bigger problems than older respondents do.

But opinions on several issues diverge most dramatically when we break them down by gender. Respondents identifying as female are more likely to consider climate change, health care, race relations and income and wealth distribution as extremely big national problems than males.

In Wisconsin, we often hear that we are a divided state, broken up into blue and red counties. But our in-depth polling reveals general agreement on issues like health care and the federal budget deficit. A majority of respondents in all age groups consider both of those issues either quite a problem or an extremely big problem. Health care, in particular, is a source of agreement for Wisconsinites of all political stripes, with the majority of Democrats, independents and Republicans ranking it as either quite a problem or an extremely big problem.

Such consensus among Wisconsinites is just one example of why polling on public policy matters. It points our elected leaders to problems that residents agree need solving, encouraging them to work together on common-sense policy solutions.

To see more data from the poll and create your own analyses of poll results, go to  http://go.wisc.edu/LaFollettePoll.  

Susan Webb Yackee is director of the La Follette School of Public Affairs and a Collins-Bascom professor of public affairs and political science at UW-Madison.

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