We asked our pollster, Public Policy Polling, to test the waters in all eight Republican-held state Senate districts in Wisconsin which are currently the target of recall efforts. PPP went into the field over the weekend, and the numbers we got back are very interesting. I've summarized the key results in the table below.
"Vote Incumbent" and "Vote Democrat" summarize data from our most critical question. We asked poll-takers whether, in a hypothetical election that would be held later this year, they'd support the incumbent (whom we mentioned by name), or his/her "Democratic opponent." (This sort of question is often described as testing a "generic Democrat.") Here, the results give us reason to be cautiously optimistic.
Three Republican incumbents actually trail "generic Dem": Luther Olsen, Randy Hopper, and Dan Kapanke. Two more have very narrow leads and garner less than 50% support: Rob Cowles and Sheila Harsdorf. And one more, Alberta Darling, holds a clear lead but is still potentially vulnerable. (Two recall-eligible senators, Mary Lazich and Glenn Grothman, sit in extremely red districts and look to have safe leads.) These numbers suggest we have a chance to make five and possibly six recall races highly competitive.
But a key thing to remember, though, is that if any of these senators have to face a recall election, we'll need an actual candidate to run against each of them. In that regard, Wisconsin's recalls are very different from California's, where in 2003 voters were simply asked if they wanted to remove Democratic Gov. Gray Davis from office. Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected (with less than a majority) by means of a separate ballot question. In my view, California's system makes it easier to boot an office-holder, because at bottom, the first question simply asks if you'd prefer some other—any other—alternative. If your answer was "yes," you then had your choice on the second question, whether it was Arnold (R) or Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (D) or Gary Coleman (?). In Wisconsin, if a recall election makes it on to the ballot, there is no California-style first question—we go directly to a head-to-head between candidates (with a possible stop along the way for primaries). So for a recall to succeed, we'll need to convince voters to support a real live Democrat—and that means we'll have to recruit some good candidates.
As the recall process moves forward, you'll want to bookmark this link and keep it handy. It's a chart of the 2004 & 2008 presidential results in each state Senate district in Wisconsin. While not a perfect measurement, the presidential numbers offer a clear baseline for a rough-cut assessment of how competitive each district is likely to be. Of course, many other factors are involved, but if you click the link, you'll understand immediately why Kapanke is in such trouble - he's in the bluest district held by a Republican, one that went 61% for Obama and 53% for Kerry. A little further down the list, you'll see that Olsen, Cowles, Hopper, Harsdorf, and Darling all occupy districts with roughly similar presidential results that hover in swingy territory, so you can see why at least the first four are at risk. Darling's stronger performance is somewhat surprising, given that senators in comparable districts all do worse, but even she is not out of the woods. Bringing up the rear are Lazich and Grothman, who holds the most Republican seat in the entire state. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which either of them could fall.
One final detail: You'll notice that in the table up above, the last column reads "Number of Responses." That refers to how many people actually completed our poll when we called them. If you're familiar with electoral polling at all, those numbers are simply eye-popping, particularly for state senate districts. Our target was 600 to 800 respondents per poll, and yet we got well into the two thousand range for all but one of them (and even that outlier had over 1,300). What does this mean? The only reasonable conclusion is that an unusually high proportion of Wisconsinites are tuned into this conflict, and when given the opportunity to make their opinions heard, they jumped at the chance. While we can't yet say for sure whether the enthusiasm gap has been erased, we do know that folks in Wisconsin are very definitely paying attention.
And so, of course, are we. As the situation warrants, we'll revisit these districts and test the poll numbers again. For now, though, we wait on the outcome of petition drive to force these recall elections in the first place. Then the battle will really begin.