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Wisconsin voters and the 2010 elections

By Charles Franklin

The column below reflects the views of the author, and these opinions are neither endorsed nor supported by WisOpinion.com.

Earlier this month I was quoted saying voters "are pretty damn stupid."

There is only one stupid voter here and that's me. I made an exaggerated wisecrack in response to a reporter's question. There was a serious point to it -- that voters often want contradictory things like "free lunches" and don't know all the details about candidates and policies. That much is certainly true of all of us. But then I ran off the tracks and punched it up for effect. I went for a cheap punch line when I should have been serious. I was stupid to do that when talking to a reporter. What seems an obvious exaggeration in a verbal exchange sounds poisonous in cold print. I knew better. I have no one to blame but me. The voters have my sincere apology.

The opinion columnist quoted me referring to all voters in general in the first paragraphs then proceeded to criticize specifically Republican voters and candidates. The later part of the column does not quote me or even refer to me. And for good reason. I don't agree with much of anything in that part of the column. I do think all voters often lack important details, and said so much too strongly, but when it comes to voting in 2010 I think Wisconsin voters picked exactly the right candidates for the right turn they wanted from government.

In the 2010 elections, a majority of Wisconsin voters wanted a strong shift to conservative ideas and that is what they correctly voted for in Ron Johnson and Scott Walker. A minority had different preferences and picked the right candidates for them, Russ Feingold and Tom Barrett. The exit polls are clear: Republicans went 94 percent for Johnson, Democrats 92 percent for Feingold. Conservatives 89 percent Johnson, liberals 89 percent Feingold. Tea party supporters 89 percent Johnson, Tea party opponents 88 percent Feingold. Results in the governor's race were nearly identical. Voters overwhelmingly matched their preferences to their candidate choices well. They may not have known every detail of the candidates' positions or records, but in the big things they picked the right candidates for themselves.

In 2006 and 2008 voters were dissatisfied with national Republican leadership and took a sharp turn to the Democrats. In 2010 they were equally unhappy with the performance of President Obama and the Democratic Congress and they took another sharp turn back to the GOP. These swings may seem inconsistent in veering first left, then right, but there is a fundamental good sense that characterizes voters: they do a good job of saying when they don't like the direction the government is headed. 2010 proved that quite nicely.

I am happy about this. When a party loses touch with voters, passes programs a majority doesn't support, and puts the country on the wrong track voters punish that party with the blunt instrument of throwing them out of office. That happened to both parties in the last four years. I hope both parties learned some lessons from it.

Are voters perfect? No. Voters often don't know important details about policy or candidates' specific positions. A Wisconsin Policy Research Institute poll last week found "four out of 10 Wisconsin residents want state aid to elementary and secondary schools to be protected from spending cuts, but most don't realize school aid is the biggest expense in the state budget." As Governor-elect Walker and the GOP Legislature struggle to fix the budget mess in Madison they will have to work hard to educate voters about critical details like this. Voters often believe there are easy fixes to problems that really don't have simple and painless solutions. We all like free lunches but don't like being told they aren't really free. And we think we are right when maybe sometimes we aren't.

All of us tend to think the "majority" should agree with us. When they don't, we think there must be something wrong with those other people. They must be misinformed, misguided, or evil. But they really aren't those things. They just don't agree with us. They want something different than we do. Simple as that. But politics doesn't produce agreement. Politics is all about those things we don't agree on and probably never will agree on. The best we can get from politics is a democratic method of dealing with those disagreements, never a happy consensus where we all agree.

Voters for the most part do get the big things right. In both 2008 and 2010 voters didn't like what government was doing and said so loud and clear. Now it is up to elected representatives to deliver something we will like better or risk being voted out next time. That's how a republic works.

-- Franklin is a professor of political science at UW-Madison and co-founder of the national polling website Pollster.com .

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