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Thousands of people gather outside of the Wisconsin state capital building during the 2011 Wisconsin Budget Protests
We need to recapture the energy of the 2011 Wisconsin budget protests (Justin Ormont/CC BY-SA 3.0)
Thanks to last summer's state Senate recall elections in Wisconsin, the balance of power in the chamber shifted from 19 Republicans and 14 Democrats to a much tighter 17-16 edge for the GOP. That means, of course, that Democrats need to capture only one Republican-held seat to take control of the Senate. (Right now, there's one vacancy, so the split is temporarily 16-16.) And in our new batch of polling of this spring's second round of Senate recalls, there's one race which is looking quite promising.

Unfortunately, three others look to be in much tougher shape. But you never want to make final conclusions about a race on account of a single poll, and what's more, we're still seven weeks out from election day. That's enough preamble; here are the numbers, in order of smallest margin to widest. All polls were conducted by Public Policy Polling for Daily Kos, from April 13-15:

SD-21 (MoE: ±3.9%):

John Lehman (D): 46
Van Wanggaard (R-inc): 48
Undecided: 5
SD-23 (MoE: ±3.6%):
Kristen Dexter (D): 41
Terry Moulton (R-inc): 51
Undecided: 8
SD-29 (MoE: ±3.6%):
Donna Seidel (D): 37
Jerry Petrowski (R): 51
Undecided: 12
SD-13 (MoE: ±3.5%):
Lori Compas (D): 40
Scott Fitzgerald (R-inc): 54
Undecided: 6
So what's the difference between these four seats? Why is SD-21 more competitive than the rest? It comes down to two "dems": demographics and Democrats. Lehman is doing a much better job of winning self-identified Democrats than two of the other three challengers, winning this group by an 83 percent margin, while Dexter only prevails among Democrats by 74 percent and Seidel by 64 percent. Meanwhile, the Republicans all perform very similarly with members of their own party, and independents are, for the most part, evenly split.

Compas does as well among Democrats as Lehman, but she (along among the Democrats), trails with independents (in her case, by seven points). But that alone isn't the answer, and that's where demographics come in. The sample in the 21st is simply bluer than the other three districts, going by the proportion of respondents who identify as Democrats versus Republicans versus independents. Here's the breakdown:

SD-21: 29 D, 34 R, 37 I
SD-23: 26 D, 35 R, 39 I
SD-29: 26 D, 37 R, 37 I
SD-13: 26 D, 38 R, 36 I
The 13th was always the longest of shots, given that it's the fifth-reddest district in the entire state. But the other three districts voted pretty similarly at the presidential level (53 to 55 percent for Barack Obama), so it's interesting to see that the 21st only has a five-point Republican edge, while the 23rd and 29th are almost double that.

Of course, these numbers are not set in stone. Party breakdowns, as I've alluded, always measure self-identification, and people can and do change their minds about such things (unlike, say, their age or gender, which change much less often). What's more, generating excitement among your own party can move the needle, and that's exactly what's needed here. We not only need more Democrats to come out, but we need more of those who do to pull the lever for their own team.

That, however, is the crux of our difficulties, according to our pollster, Tom Jensen:

When we polled Wisconsin in February, we asked a question about whether Wisconsin voters generally think the state should have recall elections. Around 10% of voters who disapprove of Scott Walker also said that they don't believe in recall elections. That means for a politician to get recalled they have to be really unpopular—even if 51 or 52% of voters disapprove of you, there are enough that don't believe in recalls that you can still survive. I think Walker—and the state senators at risk—probably need to have somewhere in the range of 54-55% of voters unhappy with them to get removed from office. That's a tough bar for Democrats to reach.

We saw in almost all the recalls last summer—whether it was Democratic or Republican Senators being targeted—that most undecided voters moved against the recalls in the closing stretch.

One thing we saw in all these state senate polls is a much more GOP-friendly electorate than 2008. That suggests to me that Democratic voters are suffering from recall fatigue— this has been going on for so long and we are now so far removed from the protests in early 2011 that the passion Democratic voters have for coming out and removing these folks from office just isn't what it was a year ago. It's possible those folks could be reenergized by the campaign over the next couple months but right now Democratic interest in these elections isn't what it needs to be.

So we have a difficult task ahead of us, but we know exactly what our challenge is: getting Democrats pumped up again to take out Scott Walker and his enablers in the legislature. And we need to keep the heat up in all of these races to keep the playing field as broad as possible. And even if we only win one of the Senate recalls, like I say, the good news is, that's all we need.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Elections on Tue Apr 17, 2012 at 12:59 PM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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