Are pollsters afraid to survey Wisconsin?
It sure looks like it. Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate race has the second-fewest polls of any competitive1 Senate race nationwide.
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In fact, until last week, we didn’t even have enough Wisconsin polls to generate a polling average for that race.2 But now that we do, it looks like Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes holds a slight lead over incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, 48.7 percent to 47.5 percent.3
According to the FiveThirtyEight midterm model, these polls are a bullish sign for Barnes. In fact, based only on polling (as represented by the “Lite” version of our forecast), Barnes has a 60-in-100 chance of winning the election.
Many pollsters may be steering clear of Wisconsin this year because the Badger State has given them plenty of heartburn in recent elections. For example, in the 2020 presidential election, the average poll gave Joe Biden an 8.4-percentage-point lead in Wisconsin; he won by only 0.6 points. But the thing is, just because polls missed in a particular direction in one election doesn’t necessarily mean they will miss in the same direction in the next.
That said, the “Deluxe” version of the forecast — which in addition to polls factors in non-polling “fundamentals” and expert ratings — gives Johnson a 56-in-100 chance of winning. That’s because those other factors simply aren’t as good for Democrats as the polling. While about half of the Deluxe forecast is based on polls, about a third is based on race ratings from experts like those at the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball, and one-ninth is based on fundamental factors like partisanship, candidate quality and fundraising. Those expert ratings say (on average) that the race tilts Republican, and those fundamentals suggest Johnson has about a 1-point lead.
Over the past month, the polls have slowly moved Wisconsin’s Senate race into the toss-up column in our model. According to the Deluxe version of the forecast, on Aug. 16, Johnson had a 67-in-100 chance of prevailing. But then Marquette University Law School dropped a poll giving Barnes a 7-point lead, and Fox News released a poll showing Barnes 4 points ahead of Johnson (though still within the margin of error). After that, the race tightened to the point where Johnson had just a 60-in-100 chance of winning. Then, in late August, the Trafalgar Group — a Republican pollster — showed Barnes 2 points ahead of Johnson. Finally, as national polls continued to improve for Democrats, Johnson eventually fell to a 51-in-100 chance of winning on Sept. 13.
Since then, though, we have gotten four new polls that have averaged out to a 1-point Johnson lead. That suggests the race could be shifting in Johnson’s favor, especially since one of the more recent polls came from a pollster — Marquette — that had previously given Barnes a healthy lead. In this case, Marquette found that Johnson had gained 4 points — and Barnes had dropped 4 points — in the span of a month.
That shift could be because Republicans have blanketed television airwaves with attack ads since Barnes won the Democratic primary on Aug. 9. The ads have focused primarily on crime, which according to Marquette is the second-most concerning issue to Wisconsin voters. The ads, which highlight Barnes’s support for ending cash bail and tie him to the “defund the police” movement, have also been criticized for being racist dog whistles.
That said, the shift could be for other reasons, like voters starting to tune into the campaign. It could even be a mirage caused by sampling or another polling error. We’ll need to see more polls to say for sure. Hopefully, pollsters can muster up some courage and give us the Wisconsin polls we’re so thirsty for.