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By Dave Umhoefer March 11, 2012

Gov. Scott Walker says 94 percent of Wisconsin employers think the state is heading in the right direction

Democrats behind a recall of Gov. Scott Walker consistently mock the lack of progress on his promise to spur 250,000 new jobs in four years.

In response, Walker emphasizes the falling unemployment rate and what he says is new optimism among business owners -- "job creators" in the current GOP parlance.

As part of his case that things are trending well, Walker almost invariably says private businesses are nearly unanimous in their good feelings about the Walker era.

"Looking ahead, we went from two years ago when 10 percent of our employers in the state thought we were heading in the right direction, to now, this year, 94 percent think we’re heading in the right direction – and a majority of them are going to grow their companies in 2012," Walker said in a Feb, 25, 2012 interview with Politico .

He made that claim, almost word for word, in his Jan. 25, 2012 "state of the state" speech, saying "94 percent of our job creators believe Wisconsin is headed in the right direction."

That 94 percent is a big number, especially when you consider there are some 160,000 business establishments in the state.

Is Walker right about such overwhelming support among state employers? And are more than half planning growth in 2012?

Asked for backup for the two-part claim, Walker pointed to a December 2011 online member survey by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce of 281 chief executives. The powerful statewide trade organization backed Walker in 2010.

In the WMC survey, 94 percent of the respondents said they "think things are going in the right direction" in Wisconsin. (Even more gave Walker positive marks as governor, which WMC officials said made sense given the success Walker had in enacting business tax cuts, regulatory reform and limits on liability lawsuits over the fierce objections of Democrats.

By contrast, in a June 2010 WMC survey when Democrat Jim Doyle was governor, just 10 percent of respondents to the WMC survey said the state was on the right track.

On the second part of the claim, a slim majority of CEOs -- 52 percent -- said their companies will see growth in the first half of 2012.

That was down from a June 2011 WMC survey that found that 60 percent of CEO respondents predicted growth. When you reach back to the survey in Doyle’s last year, 55 percent saw growth ahead.

So, Walker is right on the numbers.

But what do they represent and how accurate are they?

The survey was made available online to 1,167 CEOs, and WMC got responses from 24 percent -- 281 executives.

That’s an acceptable response rate for such a survey, said David Wegge, a survey expert and political scientist at St. Norbert College.

But Wegge said it’s not valid, from this kind of survey, to make a generalization about what businesses statewide think, because we don’t know the view of those who didn’t choose to join the group.

It’s OK, he said, to draw conclusions about the WMC members’ views -- if the survey respondents are representative of WMC’s membership.

The other critical question: Is WMC’s membership representative of the state’s employers as a whole?

Let’s take a look.

We compared the survey pool to a breakdown of Wisconsin’s business establishments by sector, based on data from the state Department of Workforce Development.

The survey was heavy on manufacturers, followed by service providers -- pretty closely mirroring WMC’s membership, we found. But the survey respondents over-represented larger employers when compared with the group’s membership.

Meanwhile, the survey respondents don’t match up well with Wisconsin’s statewide business profile. While a majority of survey respondents were manufacturing executives, manufacturing establishments are just 6 percent of Wisconsin’s businesses.

WMC represents some small businesses, but half its 3,500 members have more than 50 employees.

A much larger trade group, the National Federation of Independent Business, has 12,000 members, most of whom have fewer than 20 workers, including many mom-and-pop shops.

NFIB has not surveyed its members. State director Bill Smith said the would expect his members would be as enthusiastic as WMC’s about the state’s direction, but there is no concrete evidence of that.

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, another trade group, conducts similar membership surveys. Bret Mayborne, research director for the association, said such polls are not scientifically rigorous but provide insight into trends over time.

Our rating

Walker says 94 percent of Wisconsin employers believe the state’s headed the right direction – and a majority of them say they are going to grow their companies in 2012.

The numbers are correct, but they come from a small survey by one trade group and amount to a sample that is not reflective of the overall makeup of businesses in the state. Walker, however, presents it without noting the critical limitations.

We rate his statement Half True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Scott Walker, video of Politico interview, Feb. 25, 2012

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, 2012 Economic Outlook Survey, and 2001-2011 results archive, December 2011

Email interview with John Dipko, spokesman, Department of Workforce Development, March 1, 2012

Phone interview with Bill Smith, state director, National Federation of Independent Business, March 1, 2012

Email interview with Cullen Werwie, press secretary for Governor Scott Walker, March 1, 2012

Phone interview with Jim Pugh, spokesman, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Feb. 29, 2012

Phone interview with David Wegge, founder of St. Norbert College Survey Center, professor of political science, St. Norbert College, Feb. 29, 2012

Phone interview with Bret Mayborne, research director, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, March 1, 2012


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Gov. Scott Walker says 94 percent of Wisconsin employers think the state is heading in the right direction

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