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Ron Johnson and Mandela Barnes in tight Senate race in Wisconsin — CBS News Battleground Tracker poll

CBS News Battleground Tracker: Wisconsin Senate race
CBS News Battleground Tracker: Johnson and Barnes in tight race in Wisconsin Senate race 03:28

It seems like Wisconsin elections are always pretty close these days, and here are two more following that trend. The Senate race has incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson running just one point ahead of Democrat Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes in a toss-up contest, and the governor's race is currently even between incumbent Democrat Gov. Tony Evers and Republican Tim Michels.

Johnson gets enthusiastic support from the GOP base and is boosted by Wisconsin voters' concerns about crime and economic issues, though his views on the 2020 election may be alienating some independents. 

Meanwhile, Barnes has consolidated the Democratic base and is getting robust support from those who place great importance on the issue of abortion, the top factor his voters give for backing him. On balance, voters also like Barnes personally more than Johnson.


Republicans appear to have a turnout advantage. They are four points more likely than Democrats to say they're definitely voting this year, and Johnson supporters are ten points more likely than Barnes backers to say they're very enthusiastic about voting.

In some ways, these midterms are a referendum on President Joe Biden. On that note, more are casting their Senate votes to oppose him than support him, and Johnson is easily winning those voters in Wisconsin. 

The power of incumbency may also be helping Johnson. Most of his backers call his Senate record a major factor in their vote, plus, Republicans like him personally. That's different than the dynamic in other battleground states where Republicans are not incumbents. In Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Arizona, Republicans are voting more out of opposition to Democrats than affinity for their own nominee.

But as much as the Republican base likes Johnson, he faces an equal measure of dislike from the other side. Most of those backing Barnes say the main reason is to oppose Johnson, not because they like Barnes. This is particularly true for independents currently backing Barnes.


The impact of Johnson's stances

What role do Ron Johnson's views on 2020 play? For Republicans, not a major one. But they may be alienating to some independents.

Republicans overwhelmingly support Johnson, whether they believe he accepted or wanted to overturn the 2020 election results — and many say they're not sure which it was. That said, there's a bit more crossover to Barnes among the third of Republicans who believe Johnson wanted the election overturned.


But Johnson's views on 2020 may be hurting him with voters outside his own party. 

Among independents who say he wanted the election overturned, eight in 10 support Barnes. Other independents — who say Johnson accepted the results or aren't sure of his stance — overwhelmingly back Johnson.

Importantly, there may be a limit to the power of this — because many voters do not know what Johnson's stance was, either way. Those paying less attention to the midterms are less likely to know. And that, in turn, it may be because voters rank the 2020 election relatively low in importance compared to issues like the economy or abortion.

And Johnson gets nine in 10 votes from voters who thought COVID policies in Wisconsin were too strict. That's true whether or not they think Johnson has made mostly critical statements about vaccines.


What do Ron Johnson's supporters like about him? 

Johnson may have garnered a lot of attention for remarks he has made about the 2020 election and the coronavirus and vaccines, but those are not major reasons most of his voters give for backing him, nor is his support for Donald Trump. These factors matter some, but they trail far behind the weight his supporters place on Johnson's economic policies and his Senate record. 


Who backs Barnes?

Barnes has a likability advantage over Johnson among the broader electorate. But it's a smaller gap than Democratic candidates enjoy in other Senate battlegrounds. In Arizona, for example, Democrat Mark Kelly has a 20-point advantage over Republican Blake Masters on the way they handle themselves, and Kelly leads that race by three points.


Barnes voters cite his stance on abortion as the top factor for supporting him — it's far ahead of any other issue tested. He leads substantially among voters who say abortion is very important to their vote. That tracks with Democratic support in other crucial Senate battlegrounds.


The abortion issue is helping keep the race close, but Johnson is boosted by a wide lead with voters who prioritize the economy, inflation, and crime, which are all issues that voters rank higher in importance than abortion. Among all issues measured, Johnson's widest margins come from voters who say immigration and crime are very important — even more so than those prioritizing economic issues.


Half of Wisconsin voters believe Barnes supports defunding the police — and few want elected officials to support less funding for police. These voters are especially likely to say Barnes would support policies that would make them less safe from crime, and by four to one, they prefer Johnson to Barnes.

When asked directly which candidate would back policies that would keep them and their family safe from crime, more voters select Johnson than Barnes.


Barnes leads Johnson with women and younger voters. He trails narrowly among White voters, getting a similar share of them that Biden got in 2020. Johnson leads with men and older voters. More older voters cite crime as a very important issue, and most think Johnson's policies will keep them safe.

Wisconsin voters see different groups benefiting depending on who wins this Senate race. If Barnes is elected, a majority think he would support policies that would help Black people — the only group he elicits a majority for — and more voters think women will be helped than hurt If Johnson wins, majorities think the wealthy, men, White people, and people of faith will benefit.

Neither candidate is seen by a majority as supporting policies that would help the middle class, but more say so of Barnes' policies than Johnson's.


The race for governor

The governor's race is tied between Democrat Evers and Republican Michels.


Democrat Gov. Tony Evers garners mixed and highly partisan ratings for his job as governor. Most voters overall approve of his handling of the coronavirus, but just one in five voters see this as a very important issue in their midterm vote.


Instead, the economy and inflation top the list, followed by crime, and here, we again see the Republican candidate leading among voters who say these issues are very important to their vote. On balance, voters are more likely to say Evers will make them less safe rather than more safe from crime; they say the opposite of Republican challenger Michels.


Of all four candidates running for statewide office that the poll tested, Evers is the most liked — the only one for whom a majority of voters say they like how he handles himself personally. He has a 10-point advantage over Michels on this measure, but that doesn't translate into much of an advantage in the race. He's running about even with Barnes, who has a narrower likability advantage against Johnson.


Most voters want abortion to be legal in Wisconsin, and most see Evers as a candidate who will protect abortion access. But while it's the top issue to both Democrats and Evers supporters, just half of voters overall say it's very important in their vote, and fewer than a third of Michels' supporters do (and most of them don't want it to be legal).


Michigan: Whitmer leads Dixon for governor

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer leads Republican challenger Tudor Dixon by six points in her reelection bid. Most voters view the incumbent governor as competent and mainstream, while less than half see her opponent that way. Unlike Whitmer, Dixon is seen as extreme by most voters, a label that's hurting her with those outside her own party. Most voters who view her as extreme are backing Whitmer. 

But voters' concerns about the state's economy and a pessimistic economic outlook could provide an opening for Dixon.


Whitmer has a positive job approval rating, and one that's significantly higher than Biden's is in the state. For Whitmer's backers, Biden appears to have little to do with her standing: nearly two-thirds say Biden's support for Whitmer makes them no more or less likely to vote for her.

Moreover, roughly a quarter of voters who disapprove of Biden's job are still backing Whitmer. Many of these voters are independents who approve of the job Whitmer is doing as governor.


Whitmer also gets positive ratings overall on her handling the coronavirus outbreak. But those who feel the policies put in place in Michigan were too strict — a largely Republican group — overwhelmingly disapprove of her handling of the coronavirus, and most aren't voting for her.


But it's the economy that's more on the minds of Michigan voters than the coronavirus, and most of them rate the state's economy negatively (although better than the nation's). Half of voters are expecting the U.S. to be in recession next year, perhaps leaving some room for Dixon to gain ground. As in Wisconsin, voters who place a lot of importance on the economy and inflation are mostly voting Republican, especially those who expect a recession.


And by two to one, more voters think Biden's policies have hurt, rather than helped Michigan's economy. This suggests that further nationalization of this race, and making it a referendum on Democrats nationally, could help Dixon.


Abortion has been a central issue in Whitmer's campaign, and it's giving her a boost. She leads big among those who say it's very important in their vote. Abortion is the top issue for women under age 45 in the state. (For women overall it ranks only behind the economy.)

Women are backing Whitmer over Dixon by a 19-point margin, and women who cite abortion as a very important issue prefer Whitmer by an even larger 37-point margin.


The issue of abortion will be directly on the ballot here. Most Michigan voters say abortion should be legal in all or most cases in the state, and a majority would vote "yes" on Proposal 3, which would amend the state's constitution and establish a right to abortion. This includes more than a quarter of Republicans — these Republicans widely favor abortion being legal in all or most cases in the state.


These CBS News/YouGov surveys were conducted between October 3-7, 2022. They are based on statewide representative samples of 1,285 registered voters in Wisconsin and 1,138 in Michigan. The samples were weighted according to gender, age, race, education and geographic region based on the U.S. Census Current Population Survey, as well as to 2020 presidential vote. Margins of error are ±3.7 points in Wisconsin and ±3.6 points in Michigan.


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