April 21, 2015 — Polling has been unkind to several senators during the past few days. Last week we reported on research studies showing both Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet (D) and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) trailing hypothetical opponents by very small margins. While a new Marquette University Law School survey finds yet another incumbent falling behind a challenger, this time the margin is anything but slight.
The Marquette data (April 7-10; 803 registered Wisconsin voters) finds former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold (D) leading incumbent Ron Johnson (R-WI) by a whopping 54-38 percent margin. Johnson unseated Feingold six years ago by a five percentage point spread and the former senator appears well positioned to re-enter elective politics.
Though Feingold has said little about the impending 2016 Senate race and has certainly not announced any intention to run, leaders from both parties expect him to again become a candidate. In February, Feingold resigned his appointed position as a State Department US Envoy to the African Great Lakes region, and many observers are surprised he has not yet announced or at least signaled his intention to run for the Senate. Polls such as the Marquette survey may hasten his decision.
Though Marquette Law School ventured into political polling just a few years ago, their record has been reliable with sound methodology. For example, when most polls were showing Gov. Scott Walker (R) holding only a small cushion heading into the 2014 election, it was Marquette that posted him to a seven-point lead. He would go onto record a six point victory.
Their current poll, however, appears to be an anomaly for several reasons. First, a 16-point spread in favor of any challenger against a scandal-free incumbent seems untenable. Second, the sample group views Gov. Walker far more negatively than is reasonable for a man who has won three statewide elections in the last five years, and is performing strongly on a national basis. While giving President Obama a 49:47 percent job approval rating, much higher than in most places, the respondents grade Gov. Walker’s recent performance in office as a poor 41:56 percent favorable to unfavorable. Additionally, 62 percent of those polled do not favor him running for president.
Answers to the issue and presidential preference polls, not to mention Feingold’s personal approval numbers, provide us further evidence that this particular poll skews Democratic and/or liberal.
In particular, Hillary Clinton’s standing against all potential Republican nominees, including Gov. Walker, illustrates the slant. In each case, Clinton’s lead is well beyond other commensurate polls in virtually every other competitive state. She leads Walker 52-40 percent, a very large margin in a state where he has won three times against tough Democratic opponents. The former Secretary of State and First Lady tops Jeb Bush 49-38 percent; Sen. Rand Paul 49-41 percent; Sen. Marco Rubio 50-38 percent; and, Sen. Ted Cruz 52-36 percent. All of these numbers push the bounds of acceptability in a state as politically competitive as Wisconsin, particularly since Clinton’s national standing has dropped.
But, the Feingold approval numbers may be the biggest clue that this poll has reliability issues. Remembering that voters unseated him five years ago, with 53 percent of the people choosing a candidate other than the senator in the 2010 general election, it seems incongruous to accept that he would now have a 47:26 percent approval rating. While there is usually an increase in positive approval the longer a former elected official is away from the public eye, it is abnormal to see a swing to the degree that this poll detects.
Though it is believable that Sen. Johnson could be trailing Feingold –- Public Policy Polling found him behind 41-5 percent in early March, for example –- it is inconceivable that a 54-38 percent spread correctly reflects the Wisconsin electorate in relation to the upcoming Senate race. Though it is clear that Sen. Johnson must improve his image, the situation is not as dire for him as the Marquette poll projects.