Fred Yang: A ticket splitting scenario emerges
Friday, September 28, 2012 5:45 AM
WASHINGTON - The findings of our recent Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll yield two fundamental conclusions about the U.S. Senate election, clearly the marquee contest in Indiana this year.
First, with GOPers Romney and Pence holding solid double digit leads yet Democrat Donnelly ahead narrowly, Hoosiers are once again showing the ability to “split” their tickets along the lines of 2008 (narrowly voting for Barack Obama, giving Mitch Daniels a landslide victory, and maintaining a Democratic majority in the Statehouse).
Second, without discounting Joe Donnelly’s appeal as a statewide candidate, some credit also must go to the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party for Richard Mourdock’s possible defeat: We may be seeing a repeat of 2010, when Democrats were able to win U.S. Senate seats in Colorado, Nevada, and Delaware (despite the worst political environment for congressional Democrats since 1938) because Republicans nominated Tea Party candidates in those states.
While Joe Donnelly’s current 40%-to-38% lead clearly is within the survey’s margin of error, several underlying factors suggest that while the race will come down to the wire, Donnelly likely has the slight edge.
1. While both candidates have fairly polarizing images (no surprise to anyone who has turned on a television set these days!), Donnelly has a better profile among key swing voters. For example, he still has net favorables among independents (Donnelly: 23% favorable/19% unfavorable; Mourdock: 18% favorable/32% unfavorable) and undecideds (Donnelly: 13% favorable/13% unfavorable; Mourdock: 6% favorable/21% unfavorable). Granted, a significant number of independents and undecideds have yet to get a firm grasp of either candidate, so these numbers could change. But it is telling (and discouraging for Mourdock) that Donnelly is wearing slightly better among Hoosiers than his opponent is.
2. In terms of trial heat standings, we find Donnelly enjoying more support from his base (78% among Democrats) than Mourdock does with his (71% among Republicans), with Donnelly holding a slight 32%-to-30% edge among independents. Our polling data suggest that Mourdock still has some healing left to do as a result of his defeat of Richard Lugar in the May GOP primary: Mourdock is leading by 60% to 15% among Lugar primary voters, compared with Romney-Ryan’s 86% to 10% lead among this group in the presidential contest. In a very close race, any fissure (even small) in either candidate’s partisan base can make the critical difference, and it appears that Mourdock still has some work left to do.
3. While both campaigns (and their myriad allies) undoubtedly will focus on their own slices of the electorate, our survey data indicate that GOP women, independent women, and voters in the doughnut counties bear watching. Mourdock needs a united Republican vote, yet he currently is garnering just two-thirds (68%) of GOP women, who give Romney and Pence overwhelming support. In a similar manner, Pence (24-point lead) and Romney (18-point lead) have large leads in the Doughnut Counties, yet Mourdock is winning here by only 36% to 32%. And independent women support Romney and Pence by wide margins, while Mourdock trails 34% to 25% and his image is negative (15% favorable, 28% unfavorable).
While Joe Donnelly seems well positioned for the next six weeks, Richard Mourdock still has some advantages, namely Mitt Romney’s 52% to 40% lead over President Obama. In fact, while Mourdock is polarizing among undecided voters in the Senate race, these same undecided voters support Romney by 43% to 33% and Pence by 20 points in the gubernatorial election. So Mourdock is very much in the ballgame if for no other reason than partisanship and Indiana’s traditional GOP-preference in presidential elections.
Yet, there seems to be something blocking Mourdock from riding the state’s partisanship that has benefitted other Hoosier Republicans. This dynamic is as much a function of how Mourdock won the GOP primary back in May as to how he is being defined now by Donnelly and the Democratic IE’s; namely, Richard Mourdock (by his own admission) is unapologetically conservative and evinces no interest in partisan common ground.
Two survey results highlight the challenge facing Republican Mourdock in an electorate that should be receptive to him. First, twice as many voters say the term “extreme” applies more to Mourdock (18%) than to Donnelly (7%), although fully 69% say the term does not apply to either candidate.
Second, voters are more concerned that Mourdock is a Republican who rejects compromise (41%) than that Donnelly is a Democrat who votes the party line on key issues (35%). The subgroup analysis is very telling in the challenge that Mourdock faces in the next six weeks – that before he tries to push Donnelly to the left, he also must convince Hoosiers (including some Republicans) that he is a pragmatist in the tradition of successful Republicans (Lugar and Daniels) and Democrats (O’Bannon and Bayh).
Ultimately, the winner of the U.S. Senate race likely will be the candidate who is best able to convey that he is solidly mainstream during an era, ironically, in which the extremes (especially on the right) seem ascendant.
Presidential: While President Obama has enjoyed a bounce in most national and state polls since the early September Democratic Convention, that is not the case in Indiana. He currently trails 52% to 40%, which is a slightly larger advantage for Romney since the March Howey-DePauw survey (40% Obama, 49% Romney). The President still has some votes to gain among Democrats (82% Obama, 11% Romney), but the bigger challenge is one we noted after the March survey: Barack Obama is losing among independents by double digits (33% Obama, 44% Romney) after WINNING this group in 2008 by 54% to 43%.
Gubernatorial: Republican Mike Pence holds a 47%-to-34% advantage over John Gregg, which is roughly the same margin we found in our March Howey-DePauw survey (44% Pence, 31% Gregg). In fact, this race arguably has yet to be really engaged since then because it has been overshadowed by the Mourdock-Lugar GOP primary battle and now the Mourdock-Donnelly contest. While John Gregg is handicapped by a lack of statewide name recognition (more than two-thirds of voters have never heard of Gregg or have no opinion of him), he actually has a respectable image among those who are familiar with him: 20% favorable and 11% unfavorable. Congressman Pence has the upper hand at the moment, yet Gregg still has a window of opportunity to make this a close and competitive race: roughly one-fifth of the electorate is undecided, and these voters have a decidedly Democratic preference (such as voting for Obama over Romney by 42% to 25%).
Yang is a partner in the Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group based in Washington.