Now, for the sake of argument, assume Republican-run Rasmussen has any credibility (return later to Travis's explanation of why they don't). Does this poll mean SHS is in "deep, deep trouble"? Shouldn't the incumbent be kicking butt right now? Should Dems be even a little bit nervous?
Here's the conversation I can imagine among the cool cucumbers in the Team Stephanie office:
These numbers are all in our favor. In four weeks, we hardly lift a finger, everyone goes to the lake, and Noem's primary bump goes poof. Noem's "lead" fades almost to the margin of error. That trend will only continue. Health insurance reform, credit card reform, student loan reform—all these great programs will start kicking in, people will see concrete good coming from the big points of the Democratic agenda, and they'll swing more and more Stephanie's way.
Uh boss? Stephanie voted against those things.
[awkward silence...] Oh, heck!
Those who thought Herseth Sandlin's Blue Dog votes might induce Dems to sit in their hands and leave Stephanie's cheese in the wind might be surprised to see she's doing slightly better among Dems than Noem is doing among Republicans. SHS gets 76% of the Dems; Noem gets 74% of the Republicans. Noem's big advantage is among Independents, who favor her 50–35.
After a full year of votes disappointing core Democrats, why would SHS still be polling just as well among her people than the exciting and uplifting Queen of the Narrative Noem is among hers?
Rasmussen doesn't explain this one, but I'll take a swing: even amidst all the South Dakota angst about the economy and health reform and that darned Obama fella running the show, a lot of practical Republicans still see Stephanie Herseth Sandlin as a fellow pragmatist, someone they can work with. Those Republicans (still a minority, yes, but a significant one that in a 67% turnout like 2006 could put over 30,000 votes in Stephanie's column) see Noem as a symbol of a Republican party deserting their Chamber of Commerce pragmatism for radical ideology that puts image over substance.
These Republicans look at Kristi Noem and see Michele Bachman and Sarah Palin. They look at Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and see... a Republican... the kind of Republican they want to be, the kind of Republican their party used to have a home for.
Now Herseth Sandlin as good old Republican doesn't excite my vote, but it can excite the vote of Republicans disaffected with the values-voter/Glenn Beck karaoke that passes for their party's politics in too many circles. Herseth Sandlin can draw Republican voters in a way Noem cannot draw Dems.
Does that mean we Dems sip lemonade and coast until November? No: we still have to fight the battle for the middle. By my awesome internal spreadsheet (assume current levels of support within the two major parties and 67% turnout), SHS needs to claw back five percentage points of the Indy vote to squeak ahead. 5%—i.e., Noem could still take the Indy vote 45–40, leave a whopping 15% for dark-horse Marking, and lose by a nose to SHS.
Of course, these numbers will mean nothing when we all get back from the lake in time for Dakotafest and the State Fair. Even if Rasmussen's numbers are bogus, if I were Stephanie, I'd take them at face value, knowing I always run harder when I think someone else is in front.
But if Rasmussen's numbers mean anything, they show SHS is not in as deep a trouble with her base as the conventional wisdom (and my own blog) may have suggested. She still needs to keep us Dems happy (and recent votes against health care mini-repeal and for financial reform help do that). However, the more important battle may well be for the non-partisans... and the old-school Republicans who may end up seeing a Blue Dog Democrat as the best representative of their practical Republican ideals.
Update 09:32 CDT: Be sure to compare my analysis with that of the esteemed Dr. Blanchard!