MILWAUKEE — A bare majority of Wisconsin voters approve of the job Republican Gov. Scott Walker is doing, according to the first poll since his organizers of a recall effort turned in a million signatures aimed at forcing a vote and ousting him from office.
Walker, who drew ire over his conservative agenda during his first year in office, also showed a slight lead or a lead when compared to four potential Democratic opponents, according to the Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday.
The poll showed 51 percent of 701 registered voters asked approve of Walker's performance, while 46 percent disapprove. The telephone poll was conducted Jan. 19-22, just after the signatures were submitted to election officials on Jan. 17, and has a margin of error of 3.8 percentage points.
Democrats and other groups have been particularly angry over Walker's successful push for a law that effectively ended collective bargaining rights for most public workers. His opponents turned in nearly twice as many signatures as would be needed for a recall, a massive effort that has overwhelmed the board responsible for verifying the petitions.
A judge granted the Government Accountability Board an additional 30 days to determine if enough signatures were gathered to order recall elections for Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four incumbent GOP senators. State law would ordinarily give the board 31 days to complete that process. The clock began ticking on Jan. 18.
Professor Charles Franklin, director of the poll and visiting professor of law and public policy at Marquette, noted the importance of name recognition, with 95 percent of respondents able to give an opinion of Walker and fewer able to comment on potential Democratic challengers.
"The results show a competitive race but one in which Governor Walker starts with an advantage," he said.
Walker's campaign spokeswoman Ciara Matthews wouldn't comment specifically on the poll's findings, but issued a statement Wednesday saying voters elected Walker to take "bold action" in addressing the state's budget issues.
"He ran on a promise of closing the $3.6 billion budget deficit without raising taxes, laying off public employees, or making cuts to essential services," she said. "Governor Walker has kept those promises, and we are confident that because the positive effects of his reforms continue to create more jobs and keep more money in the pockets of taxpayers, voters will reaffirm the decision they made a year ago."
Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate attacked the credibility of the poll.
"Well, I've never seen a statewide sample that is representative of the electorate that has more men than women, it's too heavy on the Milwaukee market and it contradicts four polls I've seen done by professionals, not academics or reporters," he said.
Franklin said he stands by his poll and its methodology.
The poll shows the support for Walker is mostly along partisan lines, with 87 percent of Republicans saying they approve of the job he was doing and 82 percent of Democrats disapproving. Among independents, Walker has a 54 percent approval rating, compared to 34 percent who disapprove of him.
So far, two Democrats have announced that they will seek the party's nomination to take on Walker. They are former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and state Sen. Tim Cullen of Janesville. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost the governor's race to Walker in 2010, and Congressman Dave Obey are also potentials in the race.
According to the poll, Walker would be slightly ahead of Falk, (49 percent to 42 percent), Obey (49 percent to 43 percent) and Barrett (50 percent to 44 percent). But he's leading Cullen 50 percent to 40 percent. Only 61 percent of respondents could give an opinion on Barrett, 44 percent for Falk, 42 percent Obey and 18 percent for Cullen.
As part of the collective bargaining changes, Walker also forced state workers to pay more for pension and health care benefits, which he has said helped put the state on firmer financial ground. Seventy-four percent of voters polled said they favored requiring state workers to pay more for pension and health benefits, while 22 percent opposed it. The poll did not ask if people favored the existence of unions.
Walker is set to give his state of the state address Wednesday evening.
The poll also asked about a potential general election between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and found that 48 percent backed Obama, compared to Romney's 40 percent. A majority of interviews were done before Saturday's South Carolina primary results showed the win for Romney's Republican rival Newt Gingrich.
Franklin said the state is deeply divided, but not just along party lines, considering the people in the poll showed support for Walker and Obama.
"When you get outside of the party partisans ... voters tend to have a more mixed view of things," he said.
Wisconsin's presidential primary is April 3.