Walker's Greatest Challenge: Spinning Wisconsin's Horrible Jobs Numbers

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker may have a slight edge on his 2014 opponent, but he’s got a long road ahead if the latest polling data is any indication.

According to the survey firm Gallup, Americans are more concerned about unemployment than any other issue. Jobs beat out other concerns by a wide margin, coming in above dissatisfaction with government, the high cost of health care, concerns over the federal budget and problems with the nation’s immigration system.

That’s a distinct problem for Walker, who ran in 2010 on a pledge to create 250,000 new jobs in his first term. He’s fallen sorely behind on that promise, and backed away from it in at least one public appearance.

Walker’s lofty pledge became “the thing that shall never be mentioned” less than two months after American City Business Journals ranked him 40th in the nation for job creation, pegging Wisconsin’s rate of private-sector job growth at 1.07 percent during a time when the other 49 states saw jobs growing twice as fast. The latest jobs data ranks Wisconsin’s economy 37th in the nation, a number Democrats have seized upon with fervor.

Walker tried to put a brave face on his shortcomings during this year’s State of the State address, focusing on individual companies that have expanded in Wisconsin since he took office. His speech amounted to a preview of the spin we can expect from Walker on the campaign trail. Naturally, there was no mention of his 250,000 jobs pledge. However, he did touch on a lesser-known pledge, claiming that Wisconsin has added over 13,000 new businesses since 2010.

What he didn’t explain is where that figure comes from. Walker plucked the number from the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions, which keeps track of “business entities” in the state. Those entities include “non-stock corporations,” a category which includes Girl Scout troops, little league baseball teams, various clubs and assorted nonprofits -- organizations that would not otherwise qualify as businesses. The real metric for new businesses is the U.S. Labor Department’s Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, which showed in November that Walker was less than halfway to his goal of 10,000 new businesses.

While the switcheroo on new businesses appears to have coasted over the heads of most voters, it’s impossible to spin the Labor Department’s rankings of states with the highest number of new jobless claims. Wisconsin sat atop the list in November, and again in January. To make matters worse, the trend appears to be accelerating, with 4,420 new jobless claims for the last report in 2013, and another 5,041 in the first report of 2014.

The Walker Administration did not comment on what drove the surge in both reports, opting to ignore the problem. It’s going to become more difficult for the governor to keep these concerns on mute moving forward due to the onset of campaign season and the recent announcement that American TV & Appliance, a staple Wisconsin retailer that employs nearly 1,000 people, will soon close its doors. CEO Doug Reuhl told The Wisconsin State Journal that the company went bust due to an “unforgiving economy.”

All of this amounts to an enormous and growing problem for Walker’s reelection hopes, not to mention his increasingly obvious presidential aspirations, which would be utterly sunk by a defeat in 2014.

Even though former Commerce Secretary Mary Burke is behind in the fundraising race and trailing in the polls, Gallup’s figures show that she will have the ears of Wisconsinites who are worried about the economy.

That’s very bad news for any incumbent, particularly one who promises the world but fails to deliver.

For now, Walker still has the wind at his back. It is very difficult to unseat an incumbent governor during a mid-term election cycle, particularly when the opposition party sits in the White House. His chances of winning are even greater thanks to Burke’s confusing strategy of ignoring the grassroots and angling to fight in the margins for undecided voters. But that could all change with the right mixture of bad economic news for Walker and good messaging on Burke’s behalf.

Ultimately, Walker’s greatest challenge appears to be spinning his own awful economic performance. And that will be no small feat.

Photo: Flickr user Richard Hurd, creative commons licensed.