An Uphill Battle in Wisconsin

If Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is indeed recalled today, it will be an unexpected upset for his supporters. 

Although the latest Public Policy Polling survey, taken yesterday, shows the race tightening—Walker leads challenger Tom Barrett by 3 points with a 2.8-point margin of error—pundits are not sanguine about the chances for a Barrett victory. Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell called the effort a "mistake," and many argue despite some last minute help, the DNC has been lukewarm in its support and fundraisingThe New York Times' Nate Silver had a post yesterday evening about the uphill battle Barrett supporters face:

We have not officially released a forecast for the race, but Mr. Walker’s lead of about six points would translate into almost a 95 percent chance of victory if we used the same formula we did to evaluate gubernatorial races in 2010, which derives its estimates from the historical accuracy of gubernatorial polls over the past 15 years.

Campaigns that are down by about this margin in the polls often say that there is some dynamic that the polls are not capturing. Sometimes they are making reasonable arguments, and sometimes they are just spinning. But either way, these factors are rarely enough to allow the candidate to overcome the deficit. The exceptional cases are often remembered precisely because they are rare events.

Silver also noted that a lot of undecided voters can make a race unpredictable, but in this case, most voters have already made up their minds. 

While there's no question the odds are in Walker's favor, Silver's analysis relies on the polling averages on Real Clear Politics, which ignores internal polls from campaigns and allied groups. It appears there are only four polls were taken into consideration, two of which show Walker with a significant lead of 7 points or more. The other two show more hope for the recall movement: A poll from St. Norbert's shows a 5-point gap and the Public Policy Polling shows the men separated by only 3 points.

The PPP numbers are consistent with two other last-minute polls not included in the Real Clear Politics aggregate. Lake Research Partners, headed by Celinda Lake (who commands wide respect in polling circles despite her Democratic affiliation), came out with a poll at the end of May showing the race in a dead-heat, with both Walker and Barrett holding 49 percent of the vote. Sponsored by the Greater Wisconsin Committee, Lake's poll was also in line with an internal poll from the Barrett campaign released days later, which showed the two candidates separated by 2 points. 

Turnout is key here, and since recall elections are so rare, no one is sure how it will shake out. If the May primaries are anything to go by, folks will turn out in droves—a month ago, each party drew more than 600,000 supporters. More than 200,000 have already cast absentee ballots. Polls show Republicans with the edge in enthusiasm, but Democrats have made an all-out push these last few days—and some very late infusions of cash may help recall activists with their get-out-the-vote effort. "What's going to determine Tuesday's outcome is pretty simple," PPP president Dean Debnam told The Guardian yesterday. "If Democrats turn out in the same numbers that they did in 2008 Tom Barrett will win a surprise victory. And if they don't, Scott Walker will survive."

It's unlikely that Democrats can produce 2008-like numbers without a galvanizing presidential election, and other trends certainly haven't been in their favor. (For instance, Walker's approval numbers have been going up.) 

Still, a recall itself is a rare occurence. The polling numbers are not be rosy, but the the effort may yet produce a similarly rare outcome.

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