What might be the closest race in South Dakota's 2014 election? If Nielson Brothers' polling numbers are accurate, it could be the battle for seats in the South Dakota Senate. In its July 23–28 survey, Nielson asked voters whether they would pick the Republican or the Democrat in their district for State Senate. The results of that generic question:

  • Republican: 41.9%
  • Democrat: 36.7%
  • undecided: 21.4%

That 5.2-point gap is barely larger than the 4.3-point margin of error. It's far smaller than the 13-, 18-, and 24-point gaps that Nielson finds Democrats Rick Weiland, Corinna Robinson, and Susan Wismer must surmount in their statewide races. And that gap is mde tighter by one very telling result: while Republicans and Democrats each line up for their own party's State Senate candidate at rates over 70% (Republican defections stand at 13%; Democratic defections are just 5%, with a much larger percentage who need to read this blog remaining undecided), Independents are breaking Democrat 3 to 2 (actual percentages: 24% R, 36% D, 40% still thinking).

Those numbers indicate that out of the 100,000 strong Indy voting bloc, Dems are getting more than an 11,000-vote advantage. If the remaining Indy unsures broke the same way, Dems would raise that edge to 18,000. If the partisan undecideds broke according to their partisan fellows' according percentages as well, the total vote count from the entire registered voting pool would be 255,000 votes for Republican State Senate candidates and 258,000 votes for Democratic State Senate candidates.

In other words, if all things were equal, South Dakota Democrats could have an advantage in State Senate races of less than one percentage point... and we could have recounts almost everywhere.

Of course, things are not equal. Republicans have drawn legislative district lines to herd Dem leaners into a few safe seats. More importantly, Nielson asked the generic question of Republican versus Democrat, not the specific question of Lederman versus Tornberg or Jensen versus Page. When voters put specific names and mostly Republican incumbent faces to that question, and when the SDGOP-Wadhams character-assassination machine gets rolling, those percentages will shift back toward the GOP's favor. And most egregiously, we Democrats have left 13 out of 35 seats unchallenged, so that's over a third of districts where we don't even get to test the Indy lean. (Republicans have left four Senate seats unchallenged.)

A number of factors put Democrats at a disadvantage in most South Dakota races. But the Nielson data on generic partisan preferences in State Senate races indicate that Indies like us and that with their help, we can make the battle for a Senate majority a fair fight. Let's take those numbers as cause for optimism, and let's fight hard for those Senate wins!