Editor’s note: This is a special web-only version of Sam Youngman’s Political Paddock column. You can see all his previous columns at http://www.kentucky.com/1367/.By Sam Youngman
Herald-Leader Political Writer
Polling in the 2014 Kentucky U.S. Senate race has been vexing at best. The Public Policy Polling group has been about the only public group in the field over the last few months asking questions about Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican challenger Matt Bevin and Democratic hopeful Alison Lundergan Grimes. Despite PPP’s enormous success in 2012, there are a few reasons we don’t report the results as gospel:
1. There are always reservations when a mention of a polling firm has to be prefaced with “right-leaning” or “Democratic.” That doesn’t mean their results are inaccurate or unavoidably biased, but it does mean the methodology has to be closely scrutinized.
2. Until this most recent survey, PPP has sometimes used slanted questions in their polls, prefacing questions in their last run with phrases such as “Now that you know Mitch McConnell supported the shutdown…” The questions in their latest survey released Tuesday were more straight-forward.
3. This is the one giving us the most heartburn. In a state where Democratic registration is significantly higher than Republicans but many Democratic voters consistently choose Republican candidates in federal elections, what should the survey sample be when it comes to party registration?
On its face, the poll found a seemingly accurate sample with 52 percent of respondents identifying themselves as Democrats. If anything, it might even have skewed in favor of Republicans given that the state is about 55 percent registered Democrats. But Kentucky is an anomaly. Consider that in this poll, 54 percent of respondents said they voted for Republican Mitt Romney in the last election when the actual results saw Kentucky go for Romney with about 61 percent.
Frankly, we’re not sure what the sample should look like, but it’s wise to consider the uncertainty caused by party breakdown when looking at this or any poll done in Kentucky.
All that said, the Paddock is a sucker for polls. So looking at these results, the results of previous PPP polls and what folks are saying about various internal polls, here are our takeaways:
1. McConnell’s numbers are bad. That is an understatement to say the least, and if PPP’s numbers are real — 31 percent approve, 61 percent disapprove — they’re even worse than the terrible numbers we have assumed. Not only that, but given McConnell’s history of intensely negative campaigns, his favorable/unfavorable and approval numbers will likely only get worse as negative ads typically drive down the approval numbers of both the target and the buyer.
While the state’s senior senator has never been beloved, it is probably a stretch that he is on par with President Barack Obama’s 31 percent approval rating, especially considering that he consistently polls in the mid-40s when it comes to the question of re-election. Regardless, McConnell’s numbers are abysmal, and they are the main reason this race has garnered national interest and Democratic longing. While 31 percent seems too low, McConnell is unpopular and vulnerable.
The takeaway: McConnell’s numbers are and will likely continue to be just awful. Kentucky voters, for the most part, both know and generally dislike or disapprove of McConnell. This probably isn’t news to the senator, and he is far more interested in winning elections than popularity contests.
2. Grimes is in dangerous territory. Though nowhere near McConnell territory, Grimes has seen her negative numbers skyrocket since PPP first polled on the question in the spring. In May, according to PPP, Grimes came in at 34 percent favorable and 22 percent unfavorable. In the last two surveys, her unfavorables jumped to 37 percent. Either McConnell’s attacks are working or voters are uncomfortable as they learn more about Grimes.
While PPP’s last two surveys suggest Grimes has leveled off, it’s a number that should give her campaign some concern as it engages in limited, earned-media pushback.
The takeaway: Grimes is more unknown than disliked. Support for her in these and other polls should be viewed at this stage as votes against McConnell and not necessarily for Grimes. While there are miles to go before the election, these numbers suggest that if Grimes doesn’t define who she is, McConnell and his team will be happy to do it for her.
3. Bevin is still a question mark. In addition to the overall survey, PPP surveyed 540 Republican primary voters with a margin of error of 4.2 percentage points. The lesson there is that Bevin’s 14/25 fav/unfav is not as much of an issue for the challenger as the 61 percent who don’t know.
Bevin did not raise enough money in the third quarter to spend money on television ads, and most voters continue to be unaware of his campaign. There is anecdotal evidence that he is getting some looks, but it’s difficult to gauge statewide interest when talking to activists or voters so involved that they attend townhall meetings on a Tuesday night six months out from an election.
If Bevin’s end-of-year fundraising totals are stronger, they will indicate some degree of momentum and might allow him to introduce himself more broadly to Kentucky voters. If not, it’s difficult to see how he gets the attention from Republican voters that he will need to upset McConnell.
As for the overall poll result showing Bevin leading Grimes head-to-head 39 percent to 38 percent, well, we’re stumped. The best guess is that they are both still largely unknown and the result had more to do with their party identification than the strength of their campaigns. But it could also be a stark reminder for Democrats that despite close races and opportunities to win in recent years, Election Day seemed to reveal a ceiling for Democratic federal candidates.
The takeaway: If Bevin isn’t focused on fundraising for the next few weeks, he should be. He has a limited window in which to prove his viability, and he will need a strong fourth-quarter report if he wants to overcome significant gaps between him and McConnell.
4. This race is tied. Looking at overall polls, the last few PPP surveys and what Kentucky insiders have shared about their internal polling, this race is neck-and-neck and probably will remain so until next November. This week’s PPP poll shows McConnell at 43 percent and Grimes at 42 percent.
Someone who just glanced at this and the last PPP poll might think Grimes has dropped 3 points and lost her lead on McConnell.
That is probably not the case.
Don’t read into the headline numbers. McConnell isn’t winning this race by a point as the latest poll shows, just as Grimes wasn’t winning by 2 points in October when the last poll was taken. As long as they’re in the 2.5 percentage point margin of error it’s a tie. While politicians and campaign staff know this, they will of course try to spin the results when they are favorable to their candidate. Don’t buy it.
The takeaway: Buckle up because this is going to be a bumpy, nasty race with little room for fluctuation in the head-to-head numbers. It continues to be remarkable that Grimes, a largely unknown first-time federal candidate, is tied with the Senate Minority Leader, a five-term incumbent, and she is in a great position heading into 2014. But races like this are won in the margins and the mud, and those are two places McConnell is adept at winning.