By BRIAN A. HOWEY
INDIANAPOLIS - U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar is in the most precarious position of his political career since autumn 1974 when he unsuccessfully challenged Democratic incumbent Birch Bayh. A Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll released today reveals Lugar with a 42-35% lead over Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock, with the two evenly splitting the vote among the 72% of primary voters identifying with the GOP. It has prompted HPI to move this race into “tossup” from “Leans Lugar.”
The poll by Republican pollster Christine Matthews of Bellwether Research and Democrat pollster Fred Yang of Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group, was conducted March 26-28 of 503 likely Republican primary voters and March 26 -27 of 503 likely Indiana general election voters. It has a +/-4.5% margin of error.
The polling came after Lugar had experienced a terrible week. He took broadside headlines related to the residency issue in the week before the polling, with the Democratic Marion County Election Board denying the voting address he had used since joining the Senate in the late 70’s. The three days of polling coincided with the beginning of a statewide Club for Growth TV assault ad branding Lugar as a big tax and spender who loves earmarks.
Lugar, then Indianapolis mayor, lost the 1974 race to Bayh as he was buffeted by the fallout from the Watergate scandal, President Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, and Ford’s troubled “Whip Inflation Now” program. Lugar’s polling showed him to be in a rollercoaster race.
Thirty-eight years later, Sen. Lugar is confronted with a historic low 10% approval rating of Congress, according to the Howey/DePauw survey. A stunning 81% of those polled disapprove of Congress’ actions. A recent Gallup national survey has Congressional approval at 12%.
Howey/DePauw revealed that 26% of Hoosiers see the U.S. on the “right track” compared to 61% who see the nation on the “wrong track.”
Lugar and Mourdock are evenly splitting the GOP vote. If Indiana did not have an open primary system, a record seventh term for Lugar would be doomed. In the Republican portion of Howey/DePauw, 72% identified themselves as Republican, 14% as independents/lean Republican and 14% as independents. When Howey/DePauw asked respondents “What candidate does this statement better describe Richard Lugar/Richard Mourdock,” 36% said Lugar “shares my values” compared to 28% for Mourdock. “Is running a negative campaign” had 24% Mourdock and 15% Lugar, and “Will get things done” had a 10-point (40-30%) Lugar advantage.
Essentially, the May 8 Republican primary has turned into a referendum on Lugar. Some 40% of Republican voters have no opinion of Mourdock, and another 17% have never heard of the two-term treasurer who led the GOP ticket in his 2010 reelection bid. Among likely Republican voters, 47% have a favorable opinion of Lugar and 31% unfavorable, compared to Mourdock with a 24% favorable to 18% unfavorable. In the general election portion, Lugar’s fav/unfavs stood at 47/30% and Mourdock’s stood at 15/18% with 34% having heard of him with no opinion and 33% having never heard of him.
Conventional wisdom is that an incumbent standing under 50% in a poll this late in an election sequence is facing the specter of defeat. As U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, the Democrat in the Senate race, said on Monday, “A pollster once told me, ‘Joe, if you were at 42 percent a few months out, or you know five, six months out, we’d probably tell you to think of other career options.’”
Matthews explained, “Coming on the heels of some pretty awful headlines, it is good news for the Lugar campaign that he is up, but more important than the spread or the challenger’s percentage is that the incumbent’s number at 42% is not a good number.”
As for the undecided voters, Yang observed, “I think they are pausing. They are deciding not to vote for Richard Lugar. The undecideds are on their way to voting for Richard Mourdock - they just don’t know him. The good news for Lugar is he has time to turn things around.”
Conventional wisdom is that undecideds tend to break to the challenger about 3-to-1, meaning Mourdock must pull about 65% of them to go over the top.
The silver lining for Lugar, who is facing an onslaught of special interest money on behalf of Mourdock from the National Rifle Association, Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, is that in a head-to-head matchup with Donnelly among general election voters, Lugar leads 50-29%. In a head-to-head between Mourdock and Donnelly, the race is tied at 35%.
Donnelly’s fav/iunfavs stood at 14/9%, with 53% having never heard of him and another 24% had heard of him but have no opinion.
Asked whether they approved or disapproved that in 2008, the federal government lent $80 billion to Chrysler and General Motors to prevent the companies from going bankrupt, 51% of the general election approved and 44% disapproved. Among independent men, by a 69-30 margin they approved of the auto rescue. The significance of this data is that Treasurer Mourdock tried to prevent the Chrysler/Fiat merger in a lawsuit that was eventually rejected being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Donnelly had been an ardent proponent of the auto rescue, saying it would save tens of thousands of Hoosier auto industry jobs.
Pollster Matthews explained, “The fact is, if Lugar comes out of the primary, he’s in good shape in the general.” The problem is that Republican primary voters tend not to respond to an electability argument when what they are looking for is purity and an ideological pit pull to stand their ground.
In 2010, Tea Party candidates Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware won upset victories in closed primaries, then lost to Democrats in the fall, depriving the GOP a Senate majority.
Mourdock has never aired the traditional bio ad. Instead, he uses phrases like “it’s time” for Lugar to retire. “The race is a referendum on Lugar,” Matthews said. “That’s how they are playing it. It used to be you can’t replace someone with no one, but you can today.”
Matthews cautioned that it is too early to write Lugar off. Lugar is leading by 20% among independents. He is carrying Indianapolis by a huge margin, but isn’t as strong in the so-called doughnut counties surrounding Indianapolis as one might have assumed. His numbers in Southern Indiana aren’t as bad as the pollsters anticipated. The Lugar campaign hierarchy has recognized for almost two years that it must draw independent and even some Democrats into the GOP primary. If the campaign can do that, Lugar has a path to victory.
Another element is the endorsement of Gov. Mitch Daniels, who has a 63% approval rating (and 31% disapproving) from general election voters and an 86% approval from Republicans, according to Howey/DePauw. At a February fundraiser in Carmel, Daniels said of Lugar, “Indiana continues to be blessed by one of the greatest public servants not of our modern times, not of our state’s history, but in American history – and it’s not stretching the point. Dick Lugar is genuinely a great American as reflected in decades of spectacular service.”
The Lugar campaign taped the Daniels’ statement and will use it in a homestretch TV ad. “Endorsements aren’t normally worth a whole lot,” Matthews said. “This one will move numbers.”
Presidential Primary: A dead heat
In the Republican presidential primary, with the nomination virtually a foregone conclusion for Romney, Rick Santorum leads Romney 27-26% among the Republicans surveyed. Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich stood at 6% each and 35% were undecided.
There are two ways to look at the presidential race in the Senate primary prism. If the race had not been essentially decided and there were active campaigns on behalf of Romney and Santorum, that would likely draw more into the primary, including more independents. A low turnout, which has been the hallmark of a number of Republican primary races, is seen as an element benefitting Mourdock. From the earliest stages of the campaign, Mourdock had said that he was counting on a low turnout. The Lugar campaign, which has called more than 1 million voters, is geared to increasing turnout. Doing so could save the Lugar candidacy.
In the general election head-to-head, Romney leads President Obama 49-40% with 11% undecided. In a Santorum/Obama head-to-head, the Republican leads the incumbent 46-41%.
Asked in the general election survey about President Obama’s approval, 39% said they approve of his performance and 52% disapprove. It appears that with these numbers, Indiana is likely to return to the red column after Obama was the first Democrat to carry the state in 44 years in 2008.
Yang noted that Obama carried independent Hoosiers by 11% in 2008 and that stands at plus 4% in Howey/DePauw. “When Frank O’Bannon won in 1996, Bill Clinton got 41%, but that was with Ross Perot on the ballot,” Yang said. “Can Barack Obama win Indiana? That’s unlikely. But can he get to 45 or 46%, which could then influence the Senate and gubernatorial race? I think that’s an open question.”
Pence leads Gregg
In the first head-to-head numbers in the Indiana gubernatorial race, U.S. Rep. Mike Pence had a 44-31% lead over former Democratic House speaker John Gregg, with 5% backing Libertarian Rupert Boneham.
When asked in the general election survey if Indiana was headed in the right or wrong track, 53% said right track and 34% said wrong track.
Gregg’s problem is that 71% of the general election voters have not heard of him. Of those who have, his fav/infavs stood at 10/4%. Pence’s fav/unfavs in this survey stood at 32/20% with 30% having never heard of him. Among the Republican primary voters, Pence’s fav/unfavs stood at 57/5%.
It was a year ago that Pence led the Congressional GOP on a crusade against Planned Parenthood. But during his gubernatorial campaign, Pence has been very disciplined in talking about jobs and taxes.
Again, Yang shed a historical perspective. In 1996, O’Bannon trailed Republican Stephen Goldsmith by a larger margin than Gregg trails Pence. Pence’s challenge will be that anemic 10% approval rating for Congress.
“John Gregg has him right where he wants him,” Yang joked.
Publisher’s Note: Howey/DePauw Battleground will publish a second poll prior to the May 8 primary.