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Marquette Law School's Charles Franklin Talks Coronavirus Pandemic, Politics & Polling

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Maayan Silver
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Charles Franklin (right) talking about a Marquette Law School Poll on Aug. 22, 2018.

The COVID-19 pandemic is having unprecedented effects on American life, including in Wisconsin, which has a safer-at-home order. So naturally, the upcoming Marquette Law School Poll will focus on the coronavirus in addition to the more traditional questions about politicians and their approval ratings. While the poll's release date hasn't been announced yet, director and pollster Charles Franklin says it will be sometime before the spring election.

"Yeah, there's only one key issue and that's coronavirus — and how we're dealing with it and what we know about it and what we're thinking about it," says Franklin. "Of course, we're also asking presidential and gubernatorial approval in the state of the economy and views of the candidates."

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Franklin says this wasn't the focus of the poll he expected a month ago, but "the importance of this epidemic ... pushes the sort of normal political issues to the back of the back burner."

We spoke with Franklin about the pandemic, politics and the poll. Here's some of our conversation:

How are people responding to President Donald Trump?

"Well, I certainly won't know or hazard much of a guess on the Wisconsin data because I haven't seen any public polling for Wisconsin since the epidemic really exploded a couple of weeks ago," says Franklin.

Nationally, he says the public's approval of how the president is handling the coronavirus epidemic is a bit higher than his overall job approval. Franklin cited a new national Gallup poll.

"It is overall approval at 49%, which is the best ever in a Gallup poll since he took office ... It also is consistent with other national polls, that seems to show at least a bit of an upturn in the president's approval ratings since the daily briefings began."

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Franklin says the trajectory of this approval rating is still unknown. He notes that economic outlook has taken a sharp, negative turn as people understandably have become very pessimistic about at least the next year.

"So how these things play out, still very much remains to be seen," he says. "And did they change quickly? Or do they take a long time to work their way through?"

Franklin says, of course, we don't currently know exactly what the course of the epidemic will be, just how successful social distancing will be, and when the peak of the epidemic will come.

Is it normal for a president's approval rating to go up during a crisis?

Yes, says Franklin.

"At least since World War II, when we've seen crises, we've almost always seen the president's job approval move up in the immediate aftermath of that crisis. After the Iranian hostage situation developed, Jimmy Carter's approval bumped up. After Marines were killed in Beirut, Lebanon, President [Ronald] Reagan's approval bumped up," says Franklin.

So even in situations that are not positive, Franklin says there's a rally effect for the president. "And I think President Trump is certainly experiencing that," he adds.

In regards to the state and local elections, how is the pandemic — which is limiting campaigning — affecting the incumbent advantage?

"It's hard to handicap that," says Franklin, adding that there's certainly a reason to think incumbents are advantaged. "But whenever we have polled in past years on Supreme Court elections, for example, we've routinely found over 60, or even over 70% of the public fails to recognize the names of the candidates even a week before the election."

Franklin says this is a case where the most engaged, involved voters are even more likely to be the ones that voted early or are casting absentee ballots or decide to go out and vote on election day.

"So I'm not sure whether this mutes the advantages that incumbency has," he says. "But it almost surely tilts the electorate to an electorate that on balance is more involved, more engaged, and more passionate about voting."

What are the big trends in terms of voting and voters that you think we should watch out for between now and November?

Franklin says there are really three issues:

1. How people view the economy between now and November

Franklin says a critical question will be when do we see the economy and jobs start up again. He says much of this hinges upon the coronavirus pandemic: whether we develop treatments or protections or simply see the spread slow down through social distancing

2. President Trump's job approval

Trump's job approval has been more negative than positive throughout his term, says Franklin, but has been getting a bit better over the last year here in Wisconsin and a little bit so nationally. "Does it continue to stay up? Does it rise even further? Does it reach some limit and start to come back down?" asks Franklin.

3. The Democratic nominee

"Who is the Democratic nominee? And how do they do? How do they wage their campaign through the late summer and fall?" Franklin says. He adds that is still another factor that seems far, far away as of today.

During this pandemic, WUWM's Bubbler Talk is focusing on the coronavirus and its impact on the Milwaukee area. If you have a question, submit it below.

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Maayan Silver has been a reporter with WUWM’s News Team since 2018. She joined WUWM as a volunteer at Lake Effect in 2016, while she was a practicing criminal defense attorney.