The good news for U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin is that she hasn't lost ground in voter approval since early December.
The bad news is she hasn't gained ground, either.
The Democrat leads her three main Republican opponents in voter preference in a survey of 500 likely voters in South Dakota by Rasmussen Reports. But she only leads Secretary of State Chris Nelson by 7 percentage points (45 to 38 percent) in a hypothetical head-to-head match-up. Six percent preferred another candidate and 11 percent were undecided.
That's almost identical to the survey results of a Public Policy Polling survey in early December, in which Herseth Sandlin got 46 percent to 39 percent for Nelson.
The Rasmussen report shows Herseth Sandlin leading in a match-up against state Rep. Blake Curd, R-Sioux Falls, by a wider margin: 51 to 33 percent. In the December poll, Herseth Sandlin led Curd by 52 percent to 31 percent.
Rasmussen added a match-up between Herseth Sandlin and state Rep. Kristi Noem, R-Castlewood, who entered the House race last week. Herseth Sandlin received 49 percent to 34 percent for Noem, who was not included in the December poll.
Noem's campaign issued a news releases touting her showing in the survey, which was taken a week after she announced her entry into the race.
"We haven't even had the time to introduce ourselves around the state and already 34 percent of South Dakotans have indicated that they trust us more than their current representative in Washington," Noem said in the release.
Bob Burns, a retired political science professor at South Dakota State University, said it was noteworthy that Noem managed 34 percent so soon in her campaign.
"I'm kind of surprised that she did enjoy that large of a percentage of support. She comes out of a rural (legislative) district and hasn't attracted a lot of the state attention," he said. "But she has many of the same personal qualities that Rep. Herseth Sandlin has: She's a very attractive young woman, quite articulate and has a lot of passion."
The Noem release also said the key point of the survey is that Herseth Sandlin was only at 49 percent, a troublesome level for an incumbent at this point in the election cycle. Burns agreed that Herseth Sandlin's polling numbers are weak for an incumbent.
"The one worrisome thing for the Herseth Sandlin camp is that she's over 50 percent in only one of those match-ups," Burns said. "Typically, an incumbent who has won her last two re-election campaigns by well over 60 percent would be in better shape at this point."
But with so much turmoil in the political system, this isn't an ordinary year for an incumbent, Burns said. Herseth Sandlin won re-election in 2006 with 69 percent and in 2008 with almost 68 percent.
This year is likely to be much closer, Burns said.
"In an ordinary year, she might hope for 60-40," he said. "With all the turmoil, she's probably going to have a much closer race than that, and maybe end up closer to something like 52-48."
Burns said Herseth Sandlin's depressed numbers reflect the tumultuous times for congressional incumbents but also specific unhappiness with the incumbent from segments of the South Dakota Democratic Party.
"That may well be the results of some fallout in her own party right now," he said. "That may be where those points are lacking. I suspect that, come November, most of those votes will come her way."
Nelson said there is a better chance than ever that a Republican candidate will win and took heart that he is only 7 percentage points behind the incumbent.
"It shows that South Dakotans are thinking consistently with what the polls showed in December, that the incumbent's popularity is dropping and voters see me as a solid alternative," Nelson said. "It's nothing that I wouldn't have expected."
Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or firstname.lastname@example.org