By Tom Still

MADISON – A generation ago, presidential candidate Ronald
Reagan may have sealed his victory over incumbent Jimmy Carter with this
question posed during a televised debate.

“… Next Tuesday all of you will go to the polls, will stand
there in the polling place and make a decision. I think when you make that
decision, it might be well if you would ask yourself: Are you better off than
you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the
stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the
country than there was four years ago?…”

The race for governor in Wisconsin may come down to how
voters answer similar “are you better off?” questions from Republican Scott
Walker, who was elected in 2010 and who weathered a recall challenge less than
two years later, or Democrat Mary Burke, his challenger in an apparently tight

For those 90 percent of likely voters who may have already
made up their minds to vote for either Walker or Burke, how – or if – they
answer that question may not make much difference. They may be motivated by
issues, values and traditions that have little to do with personal economics.

For those voters who are still undecided about whether they
are “better off,” the answer will be intensely personal and perhaps a tipping
point in the polling booth: “Do I have a job? Am I paid fairly? Do I have
health insurance for myself and my family? Can I buy what I want and save what
I need?”

Read this column in the Wisconsin State Journal here

Everyone will have their own metrics, but here are a few
statistics that may determine how undecided voters answer the “better off”

Job losses: The latest federal figures show that
unemployment fell in most Wisconsin cities and counties in July, with a 5.8
percent statewide average compared to 7.6 percent in November 2010. Nationally,
the jobless rate was 6.2 percent last month and 9.8 percent in November 2010.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Wisconsin had the
15th lowest state jobless rate in November 2010 and the 24th
lowest in July 2014. 

Job gains: Walker set a goal of creating 250,000 jobs
in his first term. The total with five months to go is about 103,000 jobs. If
the average monthly growth rate holds, Walker’s four-year total will hit about
120,000 jobs. Walker’s predecessor, Democrat Jim Doyle, experienced a wild
economic ride over his two terms – with Wisconsin gaining 86,500 jobs in his
first four years and losing about 134,000 in his recession-dogged second. The
Joint Economic Committee of Congress reported this month that Wisconsin is
among 30 states that have yet to recover all the jobs lost during the
recession. However, the state appears within range of closing that 37,000-job
gap sometime in 2015.

Personal income: Wisconsin’s growth in “personal
income,” which includes net earnings from wages, salaries and several other
sources, grew faster than the nation as a whole in 2012 and 2013 after trailing
the U.S. average in 2011. In the first quarter of 2014, according to federal
figures, Wisconsin led 12 Great Lakes and Plains states in percentage income
growth at 3.33 percent. However, it still trailed the U.S. average (3.55
percent) and about 20 states.

Health insurance:  Figures from the Joint
Economic Committee show 9.7 percent of Wisconsin residents lacked health
insurance in 2012 versus 8 percent in 2007. Nationally, about 15.4 percent of
Americans had no health insurance in 2012, up from 14.7 percent in 2007. Recent
state-by-state surveys that estimated “post-Obamacare” uninsured rates show
Wisconsin 13th best in the nation, which is relatively unchanged.

Consumer spending:  Wisconsin consumers spent
$34,721 per person in 2012, a 2.5 percent increase from the year before, the
U.S. Commerce Department said this month in its first state-by-state breakdown
of consumer spending. Nationally, consumer spending grew 3.3 percent during
that time, and in the Great Lakes region, it rose 3.5 percent. There are no
figures available for 2013 or the first half of 2014, when Wisconsin’s personal
income growth began to rise.

Are you better off than four years ago? Your answer
ultimately depends far more on personal choices and initiative than what state
government does or doesn’t do, especially in an economy driven largely by
national and global trends.  Then again, major elections are all about who
sets the tone and provides leadership – which is why Reagan’s 1980 question may
yet take on a Wisconsin flavor this fall.