GUEST POST by Matthew Knee:

Professor Jacobson asked me to comment on the DKos/PPP poll regarding big labor’s recall efforts in Wisconsin. The questions are mostly fine, but I have a few thoughts on the results that might be helpful.

Wisconsin recalls do not work like the famous California recall that replaced Gray Davis with Arnold Schwarzenegger. A recall in Wisconsin is just a new election, rather than a referendum on whether the officeholder should be recalled with a new election bolted on. David Nir, who presents these polls on behalf of DKos, seems to think the Wisconsin situation is worse for the Democrats, because a successful recall also might require good Democratic candidates.

Unfortunately, I’m not so sure. There are many ways to slice the data, but by almost any measure the DKos/PPP poll shows less support for recalling Republican incumbents than support for electing Democrats or general disapproval of the Republican incumbents.

Why? Recalls are NOT regular elections. There is a sense among some that they are an extreme measure in response to serious derelictions of duty or other crimes. While big labor considers it a heinous crime to take away their hard-bought privileges, there are people out there who, whether or not they agree, consider the legislature’s actions to be within the bounds of normal political activity. There is a small but potentially pivotal number of people who will oppose any given politician in an ordinary election, but also oppose a recall. Thus, if there was a separate recall question, which renders the election question moot if not passed, there would be a risk of the recall failing even if the Democrat could win a regular election question. It would also require big labor to win two campaigns per recall instead of just one.

Nir correctly implies that it is less challenging to garner support for generic candidates than actual people, but at best that could make the difference between the California and Wisconsin systems a wash. Either way, more likely than not, these polls slightly overstate Democratic support.

DKos find three Republicans trailing generic Democrats: Olsen (47-49, recall support at 40-39), Hopper (44-49, recall at 44-33), and Kapanke (41-55, recall support at 52-44). Two Republicans (Cowles and Harsdorf) also lead generic Democrats and lead against the recall, but have negative (32-40) and even (43-43) approval, respectively.

Here is a chart which accompanied the DKos blog post:

Here is an alternative chart I prepared which provides additional context for the data:

Can the Dems steal 3 seats they need to take the Senate? Yes. This is probably going to be quite a battle. There can be little doubt that big labor will get enough signatures for recall elections in the areas they have a chance of winning – not only are they strong on the ground, but they will be willing and able to hire as many petition-gatherers as it takes.

Kapanke’s numbers are extremely worrying. He and Walker are down double digits, and Obama up just as much. This might be a hard seat to hold.

Hopper is behind 5 to a generic Dem and 11 on the recall, which is almost as scary, although oddly enough his approval rating is 5 points higher than opposition to the recall, so there is an outside chance there is something seriously wrong with that poll. On the bright side, Walker is only down 4 in the district, Obama is down 7, the fugitive senators down 7, and Walker and the state Senate Democrats are tied when respondents’ are asked whom they back in the current conflict (I worry about these numbers, as this was asked right after the fugitive senators question. Also, calling the other side the Senate Democrats rather than the unions might exaggerate Walker’s support).

The other races will be tight, but the Democrats need only to win 1 if they unseat Kapanke and Hopper. I am less worried about Cowles than his mere 2-point lead against a generic Democrat indicates. While Cowles’ approval is 8 points negative, Walker’s approval in the district is 6 points positive, Obama’s 8 points negative, the fugitive senators 11 points negative, and in the Walker vs. the Senate Democrats question, Walker leads by 8.

Similarly, Olsen is less popular than the major issues and figures at stake in the recall. While Olsen’s popularity is 10 points negative and he is two points down on a generic Democrat, in his district Walker is even, Obama is 6 points negative, and Walker leads the Senate Democrats by 3 points.

Harsdorf’s district is fairly split on both her and Walker, though she is up 4 on a generic Democrat, Walker is up 4 on the Senate Democrats, the fugitive senators are down 12, and Obama is down 10.

How will it all turn out? No one can be sure how this ball will bounce. Will the anger big labor has whipped up calm down between now and the recalls? Will the sky not falling make the budget more popular? Will recall opponents be able to match the intensity of union members who have tangible interests at stake? Will Republicans be able to compete with the Wisconsin unions’ money, manpower, and out-of-state backing?

Only time will tell. One seat will be extremely hard to keep, and another quite challenging. I am very worried about Republicans’ ability to bring their supporters out to not only vote but to volunteer in these often low-turnout special elections, especially when they are motivated by general principles and the unions are motivated by personal gain. Concentrated interests are far easier to mobilize than diffuse ones.

Fortunately, the simplest, most accurate narrative favors the GOP. While they should focus-group and poll on their own, and specific qualities of the incumbent, the challenger, and the district must be considered, this data suggests that Republicans should go on the offensive. In most districts, the idea of a recall is itself unsettling compared to the general political landscape, Obama and the fugitive senators are underwater, and more voters side with Walker than the Democrats in the Senate. With union anger probably at its peak, it is unlikely that this will change much for the worse, so long as the GOP is not swamped by big labor’s big money or massive mobilization campaigns. Incumbents can portray themselves as loyal public servants making difficult but necessary calls, but beset by White House-based D.C special interests with massive war chests filled with government money diverted without consent from workers’ pay.

These recalls will pose a challenge, but if Republicans are aggressive and able to mobilize the necessary resources, big labor can be stopped from taking back the majority.

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Related Post:
Polling 101 Recap

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