Democratic challenger to Walker unfamiliar to many
MILWAUKEE — Mary Burke, a Democrat who plans to challenge Republican Gov. Scott Walker in next year's election, remains unknown to seven out of 10 Wisconsin voters, giving both sides an opportunity to shape the first impression many voters develop of her.
Burke, a former Trek Bicycle Corp. executive, has been in race for three weeks and still has a long way to go to introduce herself to voters across the state.
A poll released Tuesday by the Marquette University Law School showed her in a dead heat with Walker, even though 70 percent of respondents said they don't know enough about her to say whether they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of her.
Democrats already have begun branding her as a successful businesswoman who, as the state's former Commerce secretary, helped create jobs and attract businesses. Republicans, meanwhile, secured the website maryburke.com, which they use to cast her as an out-of-touch millionaire hand-picked for the race by Democratic party bosses.
Even though most people don't know who Burke is, plenty are willing to say they'll vote for her. The poll said 47 percent of respondents would vote for Walker and 45 percent for Burke, a differential that's within the poll's 3.5 percentage point margin of error.
Charles Franklin, who directed the Marquette poll, said the contradiction actually isn't much of a surprise. People who are asked about someone they don't know will tend not to express an opinion, he said, but when those same people are asked to choose between two candidates they use cues about the lesser-known candidate to develop a preference.
Asking voters about Burke specifically is like asking them an essay question as opposed to a true-false question, Franklin said.
"But when you're given the choice between the Republican and the Democrat, for most partisans it's a fairly easy answer to the question even if you don't know who the candidates are," he said.
Walker was asked about the poll following a speech in Middleton. He said he wasn't concerned about the close results, especially since so few people knew anything about Burke.
"In the end, if someone doesn't know something about someone, that doesn't mean what they find out is going to make them more likely to vote for them," he said. "It may be the opposite. I think as we get closer to the election, there will be a clear, stark contrast."
With the general election still a year away, Burke plans to spend the next 12 months meeting voters face-to-face and introducing herself in person, her campaign said.
"Mary will continue traveling around the state to make sure voters get to know her background, values, and where she stands on the most important issues facing the state," campaign manager Joe Zepecki said in an email.
Democratic state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, another potential candidate for governor, also would have to work hard to overcome a lack of name recognition. The poll said 79 percent of respondents didn't know who she is.
Vinehout also ran for governor in the 2012 recall election, but she finished a distant third in the Democratic primary.
Franklin wasn't surprised that both parties would compete to define Burke as a candidate, but he didn't think voters were paying attention right now, especially with the holidays coming up.
"I would not expect the public to be particularly focused on a governor's race that's still 11 or 12 months away," he said.
The poll interviewed 800 registered voters between Oct. 21 and Thursday.