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I love getting David Nir’s email every morning with the latest polls and election-related news. I don’t know of a political junkie who wouldn’t want to read it. But I think it is also worth reminding people the limits of snapshot poll numbers and the conventional wisdom it feeds. Polls this early in an election cycle reflect a very changeable short term political dynamic, where factors like name recognition and surface impressions are 90% of the reason for the numbers. They don’t reflect underlying issue positioning, bad votes on issues in a politician’s career, what a former politician might have done in their time in the private sector, where the key interest groups and political opinion leaders that might play in the race would be, and other political dynamics that would totally change the nature of the race.

The other thing a poll doesn’t represent, of course- as David and other members of the Daily Kos community know well- is whether progressives would actually want a certain candidate if another candidate could win the race who is more progressive.

The big example on my mind recently is the South Dakota Senate race. David wrote a piece citing polling in that race showing that past House member Stephanie Herseth Sandlin might be the strongest Democratic candidate in the Senate race in 2014. Based on the polling today all by itself, you could certainly make that case- Sandlin is a relatively popular public figure for a Democrat in South Dakota. But there are a number of factors besides running as a D that come into play in that race that could give Sandlin real problems in winning that race.

The most important thing people need to understand is that Herseth Sandlin is as conservative Democrat as would be running for major office nationwide. I know Ben Nelson, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate before he retired last year, pretty well, and I think it is very safe to say that Herseth Sandlin would be considerably to the right of Nelson. Nelson at least was a relatively loyal Democrat who worked constructively with Reid and Schumer on compromises on issues so he could vote with Democrats when they really needed his vote. From what everyone in the Senate and South Dakota politics tell me, Herseth Sandlin has no party loyalty whatsoever, and would be a complete free agent once elected- as she proved when she announced, unprompted, that if the presidential election in 2004 went to the House instead of being decided in the electoral college, she would vote for whoever South Dakota had voted (which would have certainly been for Bush). And if you look at her record, on the issues, her conservatism shines through. On most of the big issues that came before Congress while she was in the House, she was with the Republicans, including on health care reform, on extension of the Bush tax cuts for those making over $250,000, on climate change, on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, on tax breaks for Wall Street and Big Oil. Now you might argue that SD is a conservative state, but SD’s Democratic Senator Tim Johnson was with the Democrats on all of those issues, as were most of the other Democratic Senators on most of those issues from the conservative states surrounding SD. Tortured though the process might have been, even Ben Nelson provided the deciding vote on health care reform, something Herseth Sandlin made clear she would never do. Herseth Sandlin is a genuine, real McCoy type of conservative, far more conservative than her state demands.

As a progressive, that kind of conservatism of course matters to me. But there’s a reason that there is no one in the Senate Democratic caucus who would be anywhere near as conservative as Herseth Sandlin, and that is- with rare exceptions in recent years- the old Democratic establishment strategy of running as a conservative in some states just doesn’t work all that well anymore. Look at Bob Kerrey’s 2012 run in Nebraska: he ran as a Social Security cutting fiscal conservative, proudly touting Republican endorsements in all his final ads, and he lost by 17 points in a Democratic year. Or just look at SD politics: compare Herseth Sandlin’s defeat in 2010 to the last time Tim Johnson had a tough race (running against John Thune, who beat Daschle 2 years later) in a very Republican year where most other Democratic Senate candidates in close races lost, 2002. Johnson ran by being an economic populist and maximizing turnout on Indian reservations and other Democratic areas, and he beat an incredibly tough opponent. Herseth Sandlin, running against a weaker opponent, tacked as far right as she could, including endorsing all the Bush tax cuts right before the election. The result: turnout was way down in Democratic precincts in the state, and an independent candidate got 6% of the vote, the vast majority of it from disaffected Democrats.

Now look, I’m a pragmatic guy. If Stephanie Herseth Sandlin were the only candidate who could beat another right wing Republican, I’d suck it up and live with it. I wouldn’t spend any money or time on the race because there are plenty of progressives in tough races to support next year, but if I thought she was our only hope, I’d not make any trouble. But waiting in the wings is Tim Johnson’s son, US Attorney Brendan Johnson. And here’s where the current polling is very misleading. Herseth Sandlin leads Brendan Johnson by a wide margin in a primary horse race snapshot poll, but this isn’t the least bit surprising. Herseth Sandlin is a well-known public figure in SD, having run statewide 5 times. The younger Johnson has never run for office, and with an incredibly common last name in SD, it is not well known to voters that he is Tim’s son.

Here’s the other thing in terms of how a primary might go down. I saw a private survey recently of SD Democrats likely to vote in a primary, and they are not Herseth Sandlin conservatives. They have a 69% favorable opinion of Obamacare; 80% opposed extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy; 64% opposed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage; 86% oppose tax breaks for oil companies; 65% favor climate change legislation. If there is a primary, you can guarantee that those kinds of issues will be raised.

So the bottom line is that the current polling showing Herseth Sandlin way ahead in a primary with Brendon Johnson does not reflect any of these issue differences; or the fact that Johnson is the son of one of the most beloved politicians in SD history, a man who never lost a race in his entire career and for whom Democratic primary voters have almost universal affection; or the fact that local Democratic activists will be far more likely to be with Johnson; or the fact that after Herseth Sandlin lost, she stayed in DC and went to work as a corporate lobbyist; or the fact that Johnson, a very appealing young populist progressive, will get far more money and support from SD and national progressive groups and donors than Herseth Sandlin. And there is no reason to think that he couldn’t win the general election given that his father has never lost.

This is a race progressives should keep a close eye on. I really hope Brendan Johnson runs. The difference between him and Herseth Sandlin is major, probably even bigger than the difference between Johnson’s father, who has always been a solid Democratic vote, and Ben Nelson or Joe Lieberman, who were anything but.      

Originally posted to Mike Lux on Tue Mar 26, 2013 at 01:22 PM PDT.

Also republished by South Dakota Kos.

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