Gov. Scott Walker said on Feb. 17 that a majority of the emails he'd received that week supported him, unlike the throngs that surrounded the Capitol for weeks (seen here March 12). The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism found that he was right — but that a third of the supportive emails came from out of state. Kate Golden / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
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Peruse the emails

We’ve published a sample of the emails Gov. Walker received at this link.

Gov. Scott Walker. Courtesy of Bill Lueders.

How we did this story

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism received tens of thousands of emails combined in multiple text files from the office of Gov. Scott Walker. At the request of Isthmus newspaper, which obtained the records in a lawsuit, a team of Center reporters analyzed the emails.

The emails first had to be sorted by date. The Center looked only at emails from Feb. 11 through Feb. 18, the dates requested by Isthmus.

The Center ran a computer script to chop up all the emails into individual numbered text files, shuffled the filenames using a random renaming program — twice — and took the first 2,000 files as its sample.

A team of reporters read each email and logged it as for or against Walker, unclear or unrelated to the budget repair bill controversy.

Of the 1,910 emails during that time period that the reporters logged, 98 percent were related to the issues raised by the bill.

Of the 1,865 bill-related emails:

  • 97 percent expressed a clear position of support or opposition.
  • 80 percent of emails included locations or information such as an area code that reporters could use to locate them.
  • 10 people sent more than one email; they sent 30 emails total, 11 of them from a person who also sent the most emails in the entire data set.

Gov. Scott Walker was right: The angry crowds in Madison didn’t tell the whole story of how Wisconsinites felt.

In the week after Walker announced his plan to dramatically curtail public employees’ collective bargaining rights in the state budget repair bill, a wide majority of the emails to him expressed support, an analysis of those emails indicates.

But that support was significantly boosted by emails from pro-Walker senders from outside Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism analyzed a computer-generated random sample of 1,910 emails from the more than 50,000 that flooded Walker’s office in the week after he unveiled his plan on Feb. 11. Nearly all were related to the bill.

The emails were released Friday as the result of an open records lawsuit brought in Dane County Circuit Court by Isthmus newspaper and the Wisconsin Associated Press. A settlement reached earlier in the week required the governor to produce the emails and pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees, which totaled just over $7,000.

At the request of Isthmus, the Center analyzed the emails. A team of reporters logged each of the emails in the sample as for or against the bill, unclear or unrelated. They also noted the location of the sender when possible.

Of the emails related to the bill, 62 percent supported it, while 32 percent opposed it. The margin of error for the Center’s sample size is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.

Those percentages align with Walker’s characterization of the emails on Feb. 17, when he told reporters that “the majority are telling us to stay firm, to stay strong, to stand with the taxpayers.”

The percentages are muddied by the fact that some people wrote more than one email — sometimes many more. The Center ran a computer script on the full set of emails and found at least 47,752 unique email addresses. The most prolific person sent at least 252 messages against the bill.

The bill, introduced Feb. 11, called for eliminating most collective bargaining rights for 175,000 state and local public employees in the state and led to massive pro-labor protests. For nearly four weeks, tens of thousands of protesters filled the Capitol Square.

Walker remained unmoved by the opposition.

“We’re not going to allow for one minute the protesters to feel like they can drown out the voices of the millions of taxpayers across the state of Wisconsin,” Walker said Feb. 18.

In a Feb. 22 phone call with a blogger posing as billionaire David Koch, one of Walker’s biggest campaign donors, Walker said that aside from Wisconsin teachers, the protesters were “largely from out of state, and I keep dismissing it in all my press conferences saying, ‘Eh, they’re mostly from out of state.’ ”

In fact, the overwhelming majority of those who wrote in opposition to his bill were from Wisconsin, while a significant proportion of Walker’s email supporters were from out of state, praising Walker for taking on “union thugs” and controlling spending.

A word cloud, created on, of the random sample of emails analyzed by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. “Governor,” “Scott,” “Walker,” “February,” “Sent,” and other very common words were ignored for this graphic. Click to view a larger version. Kate Golden/WCIJ

The supportive emails came from at least 45 states and the District of Columbia, and four countries.

“Real Americans are standing with you,” one message said. “We in Texas understand your grit.”

Among the Center’s findings:

  • Of the 1,493 emails on the bill where the sender’s location was apparent, the Center found that a third of Walker’s support came from outside the state.
  • Eighty-nine percent of the emails against Walker came from Wisconsinites.
  • Out-of-state emailers overwhelmingly supported Walker, 85 percent to 15 percent, or a margin of nearly 6 to 1.
  • When the Center looked only at emails from Wisconsin, the margin was much slimmer, with 55 percent favoring his bill and 42 percent opposed.

“So, actually, this is close to what he was saying,” said Charles Franklin, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Franklin noted that the margin is “coincidentally, the inverse of what we saw in the opinion polls” from both conservative and liberal outfits that showed most voters disapproved of Walker’s plan. That’s because far from being a random sample of citizenry, these emails came from people who were motivated to write to Walker.

“It’s not wrong to say that the balance of them supports his position,” Franklin said. “It’s just that there’s no reason to extrapolate that to the state as a whole.”

Dhavan Shah, a UW-Madison professor who runs the Mass Communication Research Center, said the public became more aware of the bill’s contents after Feb. 18. And some of the most controversial events — such as the now-contested vote on the bill with less than two hours’ notice — happened after then.

“Here is the analysis I would love to see: whether the numbers shift away from Walker in the weeks that follow, which I strongly suspect they do,” he wrote in an email.

There was evidence of organized campaigns on both sides.

One pro-Walker form letter sent at least 174 times said, “The measures put forward in this bill are not easy or painless, but they are necessary if the state is to honestly address its $3.6 billion budget deficit and create a fiscal climate conducive to economic growth and job creation.”

And an anti-Walker email sent at least 674 times read, “The Capitol is the property of the people of Wisconsin and is supposed to function for the good and welfare of the people.”

The emails are the result of a Feb. 18 open-records request from Isthmus and the AP for emails received by the governor’s office in response to the budget repair bill. The office did not reply, prompting Isthmus and AP to send follow up emails.

The requests went unanswered until Friday, March 4, two hours after a lawsuit was filed. The office said responses had been written but were never sent due to a “clerical oversight.”

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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Kate Golden, multimedia director and reporter, specializes in environmental stories and data visualizations.

23 replies on “Analysis: Emails favored Walker 2-1”

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  2. So why does it matter that e mails came from out of state. How many of the protestors that left the capitol a mess were from out of state…bought and paid for by your union dues people..

  3. I’m sure the number of out of state protesters far outweigh the number of supportive emails from out of state. The media has done an excellent job of making this issue seem as if most Americans side with the thug unions. Most people have a sense of fairness–and know that unions have pushed the taxpayers way too far.

  4. So Gov. Walker told the truth. That should have been the headline.
    “E-mail Analysis Confirm Walker’s Honesty.”

    “When the Center looked only at emails from Wisconsin, the margin was much slimmer, with 55 percent favoring his bill and 42 percent opposed… so, actually, this is close to what he was saying,” said Charles Franklin, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.”

    Watch-dogs my arse.

  5. Maybe I’m missing something or doing my math wrong?

    “When the Center looked only at emails from Wisconsin, the margin was much slimmer, with 55 percent favoring his bill and 42 percent opposed.”

    1910 e-mails considered.
    62% support = 1184
    32% oppose = 611

    67% (of 1184) in-state support = 793
    89% (of 611) in-state oppose = 544
    793 + 544 = 1337

    793/1337 = 59.3% of in-state support
    544/1337 = 40.7% of in-state oppose

    Unless you look at the total percentage of the affirmed support/oppose (1795 = 94% (62% + 32%) of 1910), in which case you get 793/1795 = 44% and 544/1795 = 30%.

    Either way, 55/42 doesn’t look right, but I just majored in math (engineers tend to do that, you know) so perhaps I’m a little rusty?

    1. Hi Geministar, thanks for this. Here’s more data than you really want, but since you asked … The percentages draw from different subsets of the data; we only identified locations for 80 percent of the sample related to the bill, or 1493 emails. (The larger set was indeed 1910 — 1865 of which were related to the bill, though.)

      Of the 1078 related emails from WI folks, we found 598 for the bill, 451 against, 29 unclear.
      Of the 400 out-of-staters writing about the bill, we got 339 for the bill and 58 against it.

      Crunch away. – Kate Golden

  6. BTW, 55/42 is *not* a slim margin. Thirteen percent is pretty significant when you consider the difference in most elections is by 2-3%, so by contrast 13% is an ‘overwhelming’ majority using the hyperbole of this article.

  7. “The most prolific person sent at least 252 messages against the bill.”

    Aw, c’mon. Tell us who it was!

  8. It’s a question of whether taxpayers should enslave themselves to government sector unions in perpetuity. I suspect that most Wisconsin taxpayers — like most other taxpayers everywhere — do not wish to do so.

    I suggest a more honest poll which omits loaded phrases which favor the unionist cause, the next time the pollsters load up their PR weapons.

    As a host of bankrupted businesses, states, and municipalities can attest: unions do not know when to stop eating the life out of their hosts.

  9. No surprises here. On the ground in Wisconsin, there has always been a majority of taxpayers in great support of the bill, despite the union-organized protests against us.

  10. @ Bob, that poll was done after the the one week timeframe of these emails and was collected from Wisconsinites, not just people writing in to the Governor or people from out of state

  11. So, when Rachel Maddow ranted on claiming that the e-mails were “really” 5-1 against, she was lying through her teeth yet again?

  12. They only took a sample, other groups like the APt looked at ALL the emails, all 50,000 plus and they found a larger margin against the bill. It would be interesting to see what those same people would say now we know the truth about the budget cuts that have nothing to do with creating jobs or saving money but all about privatizing public services and pushing Dark Ages social agendas. Walker and the Fitzgerald three will have their day when they are booted out of public service. Yes they serve at the will of the people not the other way around.

  13. I know this is “after the fact” on your story regarding the emails of support to Mr. Walker, but I BELIEVE the poll does NOT tell all the facts!!! I am a Wisconsinite who emailed against Mr. Walker’s bill. Once I learned of his statement to go forward with it, I THEN turned my attention to the “Wisconsin 14” and was sending them emails of support to keep up the fight! It felt futile to email Mr. Walker any more as he already seemed bent on his attack of Unions. That is the ONLY TRUE reason that he didn’t hear any more from the majority of Wisconsinites!

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