The poll was categorized with the following three questions:
1) I like it. The unions need to be reined in.
2) Something needs to be done with the union, but this is a little harsh.
3) Hate it. These are dedicated public servants.
The poll was a result of the Wisconsin public becoming aware of details in an emergency budget bill that Republican Governor Scott Walker was pushing in the Wisconsin legislature. When it was found out that a provision in the bill would strip most collective bargaining rights from nearly all public employees, many saw this as a purely political move that had no financial implications and had the appearance of a partisan attempt at union-busting.
On Feb 17th Wisconsin Republicans attempted to bring the bill to a vote in the Senate but the 14 Democratic State Senators left the state to prevent the Senate a quorum necessary to bring the bill to a vote. The 14 Senators were later located in Rockford, Illinois just across the border of Wisconsin in an attempt to deny Governor Walker the ability to dispatch State troopers to go and retrieve them. They said they would stay away from the State Capital in protest for as long as it takes to encourage Governor Walker and the Republican majority in the state legislature to allow for more public scrutiny and debate of the bill that they say Governor Scott Walker was trying to ram through.
All of this has led to growing protests in the streets of Madison where 15,000 people protested at the Wisconsin Capital on Wednesday. This grew to 30,000 on Thursday and peaked at 68,000 people on Saturday. As the instate protest against Scott Walkers' bill grew and gained steam in the local media, the out of state groups that served to benefit from the passage of the bill organized counter-protests to show support for Scott Walker.
The growing protests at the Capital in Madison made the ongoing Milwaukee Journal Sentinel online poll that much more interesting. From the start on February 11th and the subsequent days the Wisconsin public was solidly in favor of the pro-Union and pro-workers protesters. From February 11th through the 18th the Milwaukee Sentinel poll showed that support for the workers and Unions had increased from 55% to 72% (see figure 1 below). The support continued to increase even one day after the 14 Democratic Senators left the state in protest.
While public support for the teachers, public workers, firefighters and police was growing and Scott Walker's support was eroding, a strange thing happened. Outside political groups like the Tea Party stepped in, activated and began injecting their political voice into the Wisconsin fight. Within 24 hrs the poll results magically flipped with the total number of votes increasing 343% in one day. By February 20th the support had changed to 80% of the online voters supporting Scott Walker (red arrow on figure 1 below).
Figure 1 by Eric Nelson
When we first saw these poll results on the 20th we were very surprised because less than a few days earlier we had seen almost the complete opposite. If any event would have caused a dramatic shift it might have been the 14 Democratic Senators filibustering the bill by leaving the state. But that event had happened days before and the support for the Unions actually grew after that. There had been zero violence at the protests so that could not account for the switch either.
We began reconstructing the prior few days by doing Google searches using a specific digital fingerprint from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel online poll and loading up "cached" copies of older pages that Google had already saved (see figure 2 below for an example). This is also how we reconstructed the polling data from Feb 11th to Feb 20th in the above figure.
Figure 2 by Eric Nelson
What was even more important was that these cached copies of the pages recorded the exact time (in GMT) that Google had saved them and the total number of polling votes that had occurred up until that point. With these numbers we could calculate the average number of votes that had occurred for each 24 hr period. As figure 3 below indicates, there was a dramatic increase in voting almost 9 days after the poll had started and occurred in the hours after the planned national Tea Party counter-rally on Saturday February 19th had flopped and had resulted in only around 1500 people attending.
Figure 3 by Eric Nelson
All of this gave the appearance of a well-planned astroturf campaign to manipulate the voting counts and their results. We quickly found one of the culprits. The Tea Party Action Network put out the following call to action on Feb. 19th, "Apparently the government unions have a head start on the poll. Let's reverse the trend". They encouraged all their members and network affiliates to go to the poll and try to reverse the results. And within 24 hrs and a 343% increase in voting they had effectively changed the public narrative for at least this particular poll. Figure 4 below shows the screenshot of their website and call to action to alter the polling results that they put out on the afternoon of February 19th.
Figure 4 by Eric Nelson
In the end we ran the numbers for only the votes that had occurred after the Tea Party Patriot Network had put out its action alert and these vote tallies for late February the 20th and through part of the day on February 21st were again showing overwhelming state support for the pro-workers and pro-Union protesters at 60% (see figure 5 below). But because the voting was based on a running tally and so many votes had been pumped into the system the true results would now be tainted for days if not weeks.
Figure 5 by Eric Nelson
The Milwaukee Sentinel has apparently now taken this poll down as the results are no longer available at the following web address: http://www.jsonline.com/polls/115922949.html?results=y&mr=1&oid=3&pid=115922949&cid=8500544