Don't write the political obituary for Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold quite yet.
And don't give up on the notion that independent voters might ultimately reject the hyper-partisan appeals of the resurgent Republicans and rally to an independent Democrat in this volatile election year.
Feingold, the progressive maverick who has opposed Democratic and Republican presidents on matters of war, civil liberties and economics, seemed in September to be getting dragged down by a Republican tide that paid no attention to the actual records of candidates.
He was down by double digits in some polls done by national firms. His campaign always argued that the race was closer, and savvy analysts noted that most of the surveys that said the senator was trailing far behind millionaire Republican Ron Johnson were done by Republican-leaning pollsters.
But the polls took their toll.
There was much speculation about whether Feingold was finished. And the speculation continued even after Johnson's lead over Feingold narrowed in several public polls to six or seven points.
Now, however, one of the oldest and most respected polls of Wisconsin voters, the St. Norbert College Survey Center poll, sponsored by Wisconsin Public Radio, has the race narrowing to a toss up.
According to the St. Norbert Survey, it's Johnson 49 percent to Feingold 47 percent. That's well within the margin of error for this—and other—surveys, meaning the race can reasonably be described as a toss-up.
Unlike any of the earlier polls that showed Feingold trailing by wide margins, the St. Norbert's survey samples registered voters who are most likely to cast ballots. That should make it a more reliable measure.
Of equal interest are three other details:
1. Feingold's got room for growth in his numbers. Voters who said they were not sure whether they would back Feingold or Johnson were asked who they were leaning toward at this point. Among those who expressed a preference, Feingold led almost 2-1. This suggests that he is better positioned than most incumbents to gain the support of undecided voters who make their choice as Election Day nears.
2. Feingold's focus on trade policy—a critical difference with Johnson—appears to be resonating with voters who rank economic concerns far above all others. While Johnson supports free trade policies that polling suggests many Wisconsinites see as a threat to their jobs, Feingold's television advertising has highlighted his record as an opponent of free trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the permanent normalization of trade relations with China. Feingold's campaign has highlighted fact that Johnson described trade-related factory closings as "creative destruction" and praised China as a better place to do business than the United States.
3. Feingold is running far better than his fellow Democrats. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett trails far behind Republican Scott Walker in the same sample. The spread is Walker 50 to Barrett 41. And it is even worse for Democrats when voters are asked whether they lean Democratic or Republican in congressional races. Only 36 percent pick the Democrats to 48 percent for the Republicans. That's bad news for the Democrats but rather good news for Feingold; it means that he is running dramatically ahead of his party—which he almost certainly must do to be viable in what it shaping up as a rough year for Democrats.
Traditionally, Feingold has run well ahead of other Democrats. In 1998, for instance, he won a tight race with 50.55 percent of the vote. The Democratic nominee for governor that year won just 39 percent of the vote.
In 2004, when Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry won Wisconsin by just 11,000 votes, Feingold beat a credible Republican challenger by more than 330,000 votes.
What the new poll from St. Norbert's suggests is that Feingold is again running far ahead of the Democrats. That's encouraging news for the senator and his supporters. It confirms the argument the senator has been making for weeks—that he is still very much in the race and that independent voters will ultimately give the maverick Democrat more support than they do other members of his party.
The question that remains, of course, is how much more. If the base Democratic vote collapses too far, even Feingold may have trouble pulling enough independent and renegade Republican votes to win. By the same token, if Democrats get their numbers closer to traditional off-year election levels in Wisconsin and nationally, Feingold's frequent expressions of faith in the voters of Wisconsin could yet prove to be well-founded..