Biden's low ratings aren't helping Tony Evers. But the governor is holding his own, for now.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Earl is easily outperforming Joe Biden in the Marquette Law School poll, but he's still vulnerable to the president's low numbers.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Earl is easily outperforming Joe Biden in the Marquette Law School poll, but he's still vulnerable to the president's low numbers.
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Like Republican Scott Walker four years ago, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has a presidential problem.

He’s trying to get reelected while his party controls the White House and its occupant is unpopular.

Joe Biden and his negative job ratings are a headache for Evers in 2022, just as Donald Trump and his negative job ratings were a headache for Walker in 2018.

Walker lost that election to Evers, though the reasons went beyond Trump.

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Now Evers is trying to survive the downward pull of his own party’s leader. The early polling is offering him some signs of hope.

In terms of job approval, Evers is easily outperforming Biden in Wisconsin.

Four years ago, Walker also outperformed Trump here.

But the gap between Evers’ and Biden’s approval ratings is significantly bigger than the gap between Walker’s and Trump’s in 2018. In other words, Evers is running further ahead of Biden’s low ratings than Walker ran ahead of Trump’s.

Combining the last three polls by the Marquette University Law School (October 2021, and February and April 2022), Evers has a net approval rating of plus 5. The share of voters giving him positive marks is 5 points higher than the share giving him negative marks. By contrast, Biden has a net approval in Wisconsin of minus 10 over the same period — 15 points lower.

Evers has managed to stay “above water” while Biden is stuck “below water.”

This doesn’t mean Biden isn’t a problem for Evers. Right now, Biden’s negative job ratings are a problem for his entire party.  But it suggests that Evers has a plausible shot at surviving a poor midterm environment for Democrats.

According to Marquette’s polling, 17% of the Wisconsin voters who disapprove of Biden’s performance as president nevertheless approve of Evers’ performance as governor.

To get a clearer picture of how Evers is outperforming Biden, Marquette pollster Charles Franklin combined his last three Wisconsin surveys — all done over the past seven months — and compared how these two Democrats are doing with different segments of the electorate. Franklin is a professor of law and public policy, and director of the Marquette Law School poll since its inception in 2012.

Evers is doing better than Biden with almost every group.

Compared with Biden, the governor’s net job approval is 17 points higher with men and 12 points higher with women; it’s 10 points higher with liberals, 12 points higher with moderates and 19 points higher with conservatives; it’s 14 points higher with college graduates and 14 points higher with non-college voters; it’s at least 10 points higher in every region of the state.

But there are two groups of voters where Evers is outperforming Biden by an especially large amount.

One is younger voters.

The governor’s net approval is 30 points higher than Biden’s among voters under 30 and 22 points higher among voters 30-39. The gap between Evers and Biden is much smaller among older voters. This is in part a reflection of Biden’s weakness with young voters. The only age group that gives Biden positive job ratings in Wisconsin is voters 70 and over.

The other broad slice of the electorate where the Evers-Biden gap is especially large is voters on the right side of the political spectrum.

Evers’ net approval is 22 points higher than Biden’s with Republicans, 23 points higher with self-described conservatives and 25 points higher with voters who have a positive view of Donald Trump.

It’s not that Evers does well with these voters, who overwhelmingly sit on the opposite side of the partisan divide. It’s that he doesn’t do nearly as badly as Biden does.

For example, Biden has a net approval rating of minus 70 with conservative voters (14% approve and 84% disapprove). Evers has a rating of minus 47 (23% approve and 70% disapprove).

Evers and Biden have the same net rating from Democratic voters (plus 80). But the Democratic governor isn’t as widely disliked by the “other side” as the Democratic president is.

How helpful could that be to Evers?

There are two ways to view this. One is that it’s not much help at all, since these sorts of voters are the ones most unlikely to vote for Evers in the end. Evers has a 16% approval rating among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. That’s actually pretty decent for a Democrat in these polarized times. Biden’s approval with these voters is just 7%. But it seems unlikely that 16% of Republicans will end up voting for Evers against a GOP challenger at the end of a fierce campaign. Campaigns tend to send voters into their partisan corners.

The other way to look at it is that if Evers can overperform even a little with center-right and GOP-leaning voters, if he can make even minor inroads on enemy turf, that could be pivotal in a close race.

Clockwise from top left, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, former Gov. Scott Walker, former President Donald Trump, and President Joe Biden.
Clockwise from top left, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, former Gov. Scott Walker, former President Donald Trump, and President Joe Biden.

This goes to a central question about this governor’s race. Polling data suggests that Wisconsin voters are less polarized over Evers than they were over Walker. The intensity of Walker’s support was great; so was the intensity of his opposition.

Evers appears to generate less heat than Walker on both sides. In the end, will that be his weakness or his strength?

Right now the polling suggests Evers is better positioned for reelection than Walker was in 2018 (when Walker lost) but worse than Walker was in 2014 (when Walker won).

Evers has an average net rating of plus 7.5 in Marquette’s two polls so far this year. Walker had an average net rating of plus 1 in Marquette’s 2018 polling.

Walker outperformed Trump that year by about 5 points in net approval. Evers has outperformed Biden by an average of 15 points over the past three polls, and by 17 points in the last two.

Evers is running for a second term. In 2018, Walker was running for a third term, contending with possible voter fatigue and adverse public reaction to his failed presidential bid two years earlier.

In the end, history offers competing lessons about Evers’ reelection prospects.

One is that it’s hard to win a race for governor when your party is in the White House. That’s bad news for Evers. The party of the president has lost the past eight contests for governor.

The other is that incumbents are typically hard to beat. That’s good news for Evers.

In the last 50 years, the only elected governors to be voted out of office in Wisconsin are Walker in 2018 and Democrat Tony Earl in 1982.  Walker won reelection in 2014, as did Democrat Jim Doyle in 2006, Republican Tommy Thompson in 1990, 1994 and 1998 and Democrat Patrick Lucey in 1974.

Evers will stand or fall partly on his own popularity and partly on Joe Biden’s.

The fact that Evers is more popular than Biden is a good and necessary sign for the governor. The flip side is that as long as Biden is less popular than Evers, the president can only hurt him.

Craig Gilbert provides Wisconsin political analysis as a fellow with Marquette University Law School's Lubar Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education. Prior to the fellowship, Gilbert reported on politics for 35 years at the Journal Sentinel, the last 25 in its Washington Bureau. His column continues that independent reporting tradition and goes through the established Journal Sentinel editing process.

Follow him on Twitter: @Wisvoter.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin's Tony Evers is trying to get past Joe Biden's low ratings