Lugar's decision to run, one opponent spells upset
Sunday, May 06, 2012 4:55 AM
By FRED YANG
WASHINGTON - While primary elections are notoriously difficult to predict (and to poll!), our survey points to one conclusion: Richard Lugar is likely to be defeated next Tuesday. While this outcome rightly will be characterized as an upset, I’d argue that, even before the third-party ads, the “outside” polls, and even the Lugar/Mourdock campaigns themselves, the outcome was settled by two simple actions that happened months ago. First, Richard Lugar decided to seek reelection, and second, Richard Mourdock emerged as his ONLY challenger.
Back in January 2011 I conducted a statewide survey on behalf of Chairman Dan Parker for the Indiana Democratic Party, and I found a surprising result in one of our questions: Richard Lugar had a 28% reelect to another term score, and fully 56% wanted to make a change and elect someone else, and this result was among Republican voters. Thus, the findings of that poll made clear that Senator Lugar was vulnerable to a single challenger in a Republican primary. And that’s exactly what has seemed to transpire.
Of course, turning a favorable poll result into a winning campaign is a different matter altogether, and I will leave it to others more well-versed in Republican primary politics and the Lugar/Mourdock campaigns to dissect how next Tuesday will turn out and why.
But turning now to the survey data at hand, here are my brief thoughts (from the Democratic perspective) on Tuesday’s likely outcome:
First, and most obviously, Senator Lugar is far below the 50% threshold (38% with leaners, 35% without leaners). There is a rule of thumb in incumbent elections that the incumbent is unlikely to get undecided voters, which would leave the Senator with little chance of overtaking his challenger’s lead. [By the way, undecided voters view Lugar and Mourdock in roughly equal terms, which suggests that neither candidate will grab the lion’s share, which is another advantage for the challenger.]
Second, Richard Mourdock has one of the important “M’s” especially in primary politics: momentum. Since our late-March GOP primary poll, Mourdock’s “favorable” rating has doubled (24% to 47%), while it is equally impressive that despite some withering attacks, Mourdock’s “unfavorable” rating rose slightly (18% to 25%). At the same time, Senator Lugar’s image went backward, from 47% favorvable/31% unfavorable, to 43% favorable/43% unfavorable.
Third, where Mourdock is getting his support is critical. For example, Mourdock is winning handily with self-identified Republicans (51% to 36%) and “very conservative” voters (63% to 26%), two constituencies that are likely to turn out in a GOP primary. Even if, in the very off chance, there is a significant number of non-Republican voters who vote next Tuesday, it is likely to only change the “score” and not the outcome. Among independent/leaning Republican voters, Lugar is only marginally ahead (41% to 38%).
Fourth, Mourdock has trumped what ostensibly was Lugar’s strength/effectiveness. It’s interesting that Lugar beats Mourdock by 40% to 35% on which candidate will beat the Democrat in November; but maybe it is because Mourdock voters are still coming to grips with the fact that their candidate will win on Tuesday! (81% of Lugar voters feel that Lugar will beat the Democrat, compared with only 66% of Mourdock voters). But on the more fundamental quality of who “will get things done,” both candidates are tied at 38% apiece. To think that, after a much-praised political career that started in 1967 and a Senate career that started in 1977, Richard Lugar would be tied on “effectiveness” probably is the most telling result of this campaign.
Finally, there will be the usual and inevitable Monday-morning quarterbacking of who did what right (and probably more to the point, wrong), and the best question,“What does it all mean?” As a Democratic pollster, I am least qualified to comment on Republican Party dynamics. I am fascinated to be able to watch, but to be able to have any interpretation of the 2012 Grand Old Party, that may be beyond my ken!
But I do think two questions in our survey that understandably will get short shrift nonetheless paint a more complicated picture of Tuesday’s outcome. Three-fifths of GOP primary voters tell us that they want a U.S. senator to work with elected officials across the aisle (i.e., the “Lugar” model), compared with just 33% who want a U.S. senator to focus on standing up for conservative principles (i.e., the “Mourdock” model). Yet, Mourdock is poised to win next Tuesday, and the big reason why is that among voters who want compromise, Lugar is only beating Mourdock by 49% to 38%. (Mourdock is winning by 66% to 19% among “conservative principles” voters).
Similarly, we find that, by a solid 54% to 32%, GOP primary voters support the DREAM Act, with even a plurality of “very conservative” voters in support. This would not be the expected outcome for an electorate that is poised to elect a Tea Party supporter to the U.S. Senate. Again, among pro-DREAM Act voters, Lugar is only winning 45% to 40%. (Mourdock is sweeping the anti-DREAM Act voters by 62% to 25%).
So, what does it all mean? Only that what will likely happen next Tuesday is complicated and probably is the culmination of long-term factors that may have been beyond the ability of any single campaign to shape and influence. And perhaps at the end of the day, the answer comes down to the two simple facts I posited at the beginning: Richard Lugar made the decision to seek reelection in 2012 and Richard Mourdock became the credible (and only) vessel of change.
Yang is a partner with Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group in Washington and has polled on behalf of the Indiana Democratic Party, Gov. Frank O’Bannon and Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson.