We had yet another strange polling surprise when Rasmussen, a national pollster, decided to take another poll on the governor's race because its last one had been conducted just before Tony Rezko's indictment.
As expected, Governor Rod Blagojevich's support dropped since his pal, confidante, and mega-fundraiser was indicted by the feds. Blagojevich went from 49 percent in the pre-indictment Rasmussen poll down to 44 percent a week later. But Judy Baar Topinka's backing dropped even more, from 43 down to 36. Rod fell five and Judy fell seven. What the heck?
One reasonable explanation might be that incumbents always suffer during bad news, and Blagojevich has successfully pegged Topinka as an incumbent politician in voters' minds. That multitude of "What's she thinking?" spots and the George Ryan ads have certainly done the trick. So when Rezko was indicted, the voters who are paying attention (GOP polling had awareness of the event at about 65 percent less than a week afterwards) may have processed it as an indictment on the system in general. And since polling shows that they despise Topinka even more than they hate Blagojevich, she bore a greater brunt. Yeah, it's bizarre, but probably true.
The polling we've seen the past few months is some of the weirdest I've ever encountered.
SurveyUSA releases a monthly tracking poll on the job-approval rating of every governor in America. October's survey found that Rod Blagojevich had the worst approval rating of all Democratic governors and the fifth worst among all governors. Yet the governor leads Topinka in every single poll.
A Glengariff Group poll taken last week revealed that 51 percent of Illinoisans believe Blagojevich knew about the Rezko corruption. Just 25 percent said he didn't know. The same poll had Blagojevich ahead of Topinka by nine points (39-30).
Voters just don't like either candidate. A Tribune poll taken before Rezko's indictment found that over half the voters said they were dissatisfied with their choice.
Rasmussen found, three weeks before the election, that less than half of the voters had solidly made up their mind about the governor's race. A mere 24 percent said they were certain to vote for Blagojevich, while 22 percent said they were certain to vote for Topinka. Nobody said they were certain to vote for Green Party candidate Rich Whitney.
The closest we've probably ever come to a situation when both candidates were terribly unpopular was the 2002 Lisa Madigan versus Joe Birkett attorney general race. At least we thought at the time that they were unpopular.
Lisa Madigan's unfavorable rating topped out at around 45 percent, which was considered monstrously high back then and believed to be an impossible obstacle to victory. When those poll results came in a few weeks before election day the Madigan campaign panicked and a huge split developed between those who wanted to go totally positive and those who wanted to stay completely negative. The negatives won out, although Madigan did run a handful of positive TV ads at the very end. By comparison, most polls have Topinka's and Blagojevich's unfavorables somewhere around 60 percent. We're in uncharted waters, folks.
It seems easy to predict a Blagojevich victory because he's ahead in every poll, this state leans heavily Democratic, and Topinka has been successfully transformed by the governor's media team from being a respected state elder into a George Ryan hack. But no credible poll shows Blagojevich with enough votes to win, despite all the positive TV ads he's running. His favorability and job-approval ratings are so bad that he hasn't been able to close the deal.
On the other hand, Topinka's numbers are even worse. Usually we assume that the vast majority of undecided voters will eventually break toward the challenger. In a "normal" year, Topinka would have a decent shot at closing the gap. But this isn't a normal year. The undecideds don't like her, either.
Lots of voters appear to be mulling whether to cast their ballot for the Green Party candidate. Normally, voters will change their mind at the end and go with an established party candidate. But, like I said, this isn't a normal year. As a result, if Topinka doesn't change the race's dynamics right now then Rich Whitney (and Green Party treasurer candidate Dan Schlorff) might end up with a lot more votes than most people think.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and (http://www.thecapitolfaxblog.com).