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Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. speaks April 2, 2024, at a rally for former President Donald Trump on in Green Bay, Wis. (AP) Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. speaks April 2, 2024, at a rally for former President Donald Trump on in Green Bay, Wis. (AP)

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. speaks April 2, 2024, at a rally for former President Donald Trump on in Green Bay, Wis. (AP)

By Hope Karnopp June 5, 2024

Ron Johnson said people shouldn’t trust early polling. His position is more nuanced than that.

If Your Time is short

  • Polls conducted on Ron Johnson, R-Wis’ Senate runs in 2010, 2016 and 2022 showed him trailing in the early months, especially in 2016, then winning each time.

  • But polls show the changing dynamics of a campaign, and can’t be used as a predictor until the race’s very last weeks.

It’s not much of a surprise that President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are locked in a close race in battleground Wisconsin.

Trump had a 2-point lead among both registered and likely voters in Wisconsin, the latest Marquette University Law School Poll found in April. 

Other polls released in May showed Biden with a lead in Wisconsin. A New York Times/Siena College poll found Biden led in Wisconsin, but not five other battleground states. 

In that poll, Biden was up two percentage points among registered voters in Wisconsin. Trump, however, had a 1-point lead among likely voters.

A Quinnipiac poll showed Biden with a much larger, 6-point lead: 50% to 44% over Trump among registered voters in Wisconsin. 

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., was asked about those Wisconsin polls in a May 19 interview on NewsNation’s "The Hill Sunday." 

"As somebody who has run statewide three times, and seen polls wildly incorrect all three times, I just would not trust the early polls," Johnson said.

Johnson added there is no doubt that "Wisconsin is going to be a very close state."

PolitiFact Wisconsin was interested in Johnson’s claim, especially because polls of the Biden-Trump rematch in Wisconsin have shown some variation.

First, we will look back at polls during Johnson’s three runs for U.S. Senate to see where they fell. Then, we’ll add some context about what to keep in mind when looking at early polls.

Polling did show Johnson trailed in earlier months of the election cycle

When we asked for backup, Johnson spokesperson Kiersten Pels shared a few poll examples, including a poll in which Johnson’s lead was much higher than his final margin and some in which his opponents were polling quite a bit above him, even in the weeks before the election.

"Simply put, the polls were significantly wrong, especially in the last two races. He instinctively knew those races would be close, he ignored the polls, and was proven correct," she said. "The elections were close." 

Since some polls are better than others, let’s look at averages of multiple polls collected by during Johnson’s three U.S. Senate runs – in 2010, 2016 and 2022. 

2010 election

In 2010, Johnson ran against Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold. 

According to RealClearPolling’s averages, Feingold was about 2 percentage points ahead of Johnson in July and August. Then Feingold was up about 1 point through mid-September.

After the primary, Johnson pulled ahead of Feingold, polling 6 to 10 percentage points above Feingold for the rest of the race. Johnson won that election with 52%, compared with Feingold’s 47%.

2016 election

This election was a rematch of Johnson and Feingold. By that point, Johnson would have had more recognition as an incumbent. S,o if that was a factor in early polls in 2010, it was less so in 2016.

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Feingold had a lead over Johnson the entire race, according to RealClearPolling’s averages. Johnson trailed by more than 12 points between April and August of 2015 — which were very early polls.

Feingold was still leading by upwards of 10 points for most of the campaign, until it narrowed in the last month or so. Johnson pulled off an upset that year, winning with about 50%, compared to Feingold’s 47%.

2022 election

Those averages are a little easier to parse. Democratic challenger Mandela Barnes had a 4-to-5 point lead until mid-September. 

Around the time of the primary, their leads switched. Johnson stayed about three points ahead of Barnes for the rest of the campaign. Johnson won by just a percentage point: 50.5% to Barnes’ 49.5%.

To summarize: Polling conducted in the early months of the election cycles did show Johnson trailing, though he won all three elections. That’s most obvious in 2016, when Feingold led essentially the entire time. 

But does that mean the early polls are "wildly incorrect," as Johnson said? It’s a little more complicated than that. 

Polls are a snapshot in time rather than a predictor, Johnson’s 2016 race is a good example

PolitiFact Wisconsin reached out to Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University Law School Poll, for context. 

"It’s an old line, but polls are a snapshot in time," Franklin said. "A poll really is a measure of where opinion stands at the time that the poll was taken."

Although it’s inevitable that people will look at polls today as a prediction of where the race will end up months from now, that’s not the right way to look at it, he said. 

Instead, polls "capture the dynamics of a campaign," he said. Johnson’s run in 2016 is one of Franklin’s favorite examples of that. 

"I think the polling captured the dynamics of that race extremely well, showing Johnson starting out trailing, but showing him running an effective campaign that closed the margin consistently, and ultimately put him in a position to win," he said.

Polls do get "better as predictors as you get later in the campaign," Franklin said, and especially in the last two or three weeks. But even then, they’re not infallible. 

Our ruling

Johnson said he saw early polls that were "wildly incorrect" during each of his three statewide runs. 

The heart of Johnson's claim is accurate: Polls showed him trailing in the early months, despite pulling off a victory each time. That was most clear in 2016.

When Johnson said not to trust the early polls, he wasn’t suggesting there was something wrong with the polling methodology itself. Instead, he’s getting at the idea that his polls didn’t match the final outcome.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the polls were "wildly incorrect." Polls aren’t supposed to predict the final election outcome, but show a snapshot of the campaign in time. 

Our definition of Mostly True is "the statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information." That fits here.


Our Sources

The Hill, Ron Johnson says he doesn’t trust polls showing Biden beating Trump in Wisconsin, May 19, 2024

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Marquette poll of Wisconsin voters shows Trump, Biden locked in a tight race, April 17, 2024

The New York Times, Trump leads in 5 key states, as young and nonwhite voters express discontent with Biden, May 13, 2024

Quinnipiac University Poll, Wisconsin 2024: Biden leads Trump in 2-way race, It’s neck and neck when ballot includes third-party candidates, Quinnipiac University Wisconsin poll finds; Voters 50 - 38% oppose campus protests over Israel’s actions in Gaza, May 8, 2024

Email exchange, Kiersten Pels, spokesperson for Sen. Ron Johnson, May 23, 2024, 2010 Wisconsin Senate - Feingold vs. Johnson

The New York Times, 2010 Election Results Wisconsin., 2016 Wisconsin Senate - Johnson vs. Feingold.

New York Times, Wisconsin U.S. Senate results: Ron Johnson wins, Aug. 1, 2017., 2022 Wisconsin Senate - Johnson vs. Barnes.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 2022 Wisconsin U.S. Senate Election Results, Nov. 8, 2022.

Phone conversation, Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University Law School Poll, May 22, 2024.

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Ron Johnson said people shouldn’t trust early polling. His position is more nuanced than that.

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