Fred Yang: Exhibition season over, we'll see if Lugar survives
Thursday, April 12, 2012 11:03 AM
By FRED YANG
Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group
WASHINGTON - While the historic nature (and excitement) of the 2008 elections here in Indiana seems difficult to duplicate, there are several elections in 2012 whose outcomes could be consequential for Hoosiers. In particular, 2012 could witness the end of Richard Lugar’s long political career, which started in 1967. I am a fish out of water when it comes to analyzing Republican primaries (I greatly defer to my colleague Chris Matthews in the practice of this, shall we say, challenging art!). But my quick read of the GOP primary poll suggests that Richard Lugar likely will lose the May 8 primary election.
The casual observer will ask (quite logically) how I could draw that conclusion when Senator Lugar is leading Dick Mourdock in the initial trial heat and has superior name recognition (nearly four-fifths of GOP primary voters have an opinion of Lugar, compared with only 42% who have impressions of Mourdock). Again, I will be interested in Chris’ analysis of the GOP primary dynamics, but here are some numbers “beneath” the surface that suggest Lugar is poised to lose.
ν First, Lugar’s 42% (37% without leaners) is below the 50% threshold that incumbents need to surpass. So the argument goes, if after nearly 45 years in office nearly three-fifths of GOP primary voters won’t commit to Lugar now, what are the chances he wins them over in the next five weeks?
ν Second, Lugar fares worse in the GOP primary with GOP voters. Among voters who identify themselves as Republicans, Lugar and Mourdock are knotted at 38%. Among GOP primary voters who voted in both the 2008 and 2010 primaries, Mourdock and Lugar are again tied. Both groups are the more likely to turn out in a May primary, and thus, in a low-turn primary in which “base” Republicans would make up the overwhelming share, Lugar would be in trouble.
ν Finally, the trait comparisons between the two candidates show Lugar’s problems even though right now he is ahead of Mourdock. Sure, Richard Lugar has an eight-point lead on “shares my values” and he is ten points ahead on “will get things done,” but he has been in office for five decades and in the U.S. Senate since 1976, and he can barely manage double-digit advantages over a basically unknown opponent.
Can Richard Lugar win the GOP primary? Absolutely, and as the 2012 primary season has shown so far, unpredictability is predictable. Senator Lugar’s one chance seems to be to (negatively) define Mourdock, and with nearly three-fifths of GOP primary voters unable to rate their impressions of the challenger, that task seems doable. And the polling shows that if the GOP primary electorate “expands,” Lugar has a chance to win (which is ironic – if Lugar wins the GOP primary he will do so because of non-Republicans). But at the end of the day, elections involving incumbents turn out to be a referendum on the incumbent (especially in primary elections), and if that ends up being the case, our poll results suggest that Dick Lugar will be hard-pressed to win.
Well, that was a fun sidelight onto the “other side.”
The Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll included questions on the presidential, gubernatorial, and U.S. Senate races, and the main takeaway is that the Republican candidates with seemingly healthy leads nonetheless can take nothing for granted; it is still early and the campaign has barely started (to the voters).
In some respects, the timing of our first Battleground poll with the start of the major league baseball season is appropriate: the exhibition season is over and now the games count. And your record in the pre-season usually does not predict your success in the regular season. While our poll did not go in-depth on overall dynamics looming in 2012, we know from other polls and the national zeitgeist that voters are not satisfied with the status quo and have no problem shaking things up.
Presidential: Barack Obama trails Mitt Romney by 49% to 40% and Rick Santorum by a slightly smaller margin (46% to 41%). In comparing the current results with the 2008 Indiana exit poll, the most important change has been among independents; Obama won them by 54% to 43% in 2008, and in our survey he only wins by 45% to 41%. If the President can regain some of his support among independents (as he should once the general election gets more engaged), the Obama-Romney race becomes more competitive.
The survey data provide one specific issue that should help the Obama reelection campaign: the auto bailout. Overall, about half (51%) of Hoosier voters approve of the $80 billion loan to Chrysler/GM, with 44% disapproving. Independents approve by a very strong 61% to 37%, which suggests that this is a very potent issue for the Obama campaign.
Gubernatorial: Republican Mike Pence has an early 44% to 31% lead over John Gregg, with Libertarian Rupert Boneham garnering 3%. Pence’s current lead is largely a function of his higher name recognition as a current officeholder (70%, versus 29% for Gregg, who has been out of politics for nearly a decade). Two items in particular indicate that the gubernatorial race is far from over. First, Pence’s advantage among independents is surprisingly lackluster at only 32% to 25%. And second, note that Congress has an 81% disapprove rating (81% disapprove with Republicans and 87% disapprove with independents), which is not a great credential for the five-term Congressman Pence. Gregg is slightly better positioned - even with his 13% deficit - than the late Frank O’Bannon in 1996 (who trailed by 20 points in a number of polls).
Finally, there is no doubt that Governor Daniels is popular; his 63% job approval rating is impressive. But the survey also raises doubts about whether any of Daniels’ popularity can translate into anyone not named Mitch Daniels. For example, the Republicans in the legislature have a net positive rating of 38% favorable and 36% unfavorable, which is better than the Democrats in the state legislature (32% favorable, 39% unfavorable). Not only is the GOP legislature perceived only marginally better than the Democrats, but also the GOP woefully underperforms the GOP governor. And, among independents, the Democrats actually are at a net plus (32% favorable, 28% unfavorable), while the Republicans are extremely polarizing (23% favorable, 42% unfavorable).
U.S. Senate: The dynamics of this election will greatly change depending on whether the GOP candidate to face Joe Donnelly is Lugar or Mourdock, but the polling indicates that the race will be closely contested until the end. Lugar leads Donnelly by 50% to 29%, but Lugar is below 50% without leaners (46%) and arguably Donnelly’s deficit is magnified by his lack of name recognition (77% of Hoosiers cannot rate Donnelly, compared with only 23% who cannot rate Lugar). Against Mourdock, Congressman Donnelly instantly is more competitive (35% Donnelly, 35% Mourdock) mostly because both candidates are equally known (or unknown, as the case might be). A couple of interesting cross-tabs in the Donnelly-Mourdock race:
ν Donnelly leads 34% to 19% among independents, with Libertarian Andrew Horning garnering 10%.
ν Among those who support Lugar against Donnelly, only 53% vote for Republican Mourdock, 18% vote for Donnelly, and 24% are undecided.
The last result in particular restates the conventional wisdom (which sometimes is actually correct!) that a general election against Mourdock starts off as a tossup race. But I would argue that although Lugar currently has the lead against Donnelly, the same dynamics that have made him vulnerable in the GOP primary also are present in the general election. In summary, Indiana is looking like it will have three interesting, important, and competitive elections.
Yang is a partner with Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group.