Kentucky exit poll suggests more warning signs for Mitch McConnell than for Donald Trump in the aftermath of Tuesday’s gubernatorial election

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There has been no small amount of punditry this week on what implications, if any, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin’s narrow loss to Democratic challenger Andy Beshear might have for President Trump or Senator McConnell in 2020 next year.

Some have argued that Bevin’s loss was “a smack at both Mitch McConnell and the president, sending up a cautionary note” while others have said that Bevin’s loss “tells us nothing about McConnell’s chances in 2020.”

The 2019 Collaborative Kentucky Exit Poll (CKEP) surveyed nearly 4,000 voters in Tuesday’s gubernatorial election. The results offer some clues into what Bevin’s loss might mean for 2020 for both Trump and McConnell.

President Trump

Partisan identity is the strongest and most consistent predictor of presidential voting patterns in modern American elections. The CKEP survey showed that Republicans (and Republican leaners) made up about 53% of Kentucky voters in this Tuesday’s election. The survey also showed that 88% of Kentucky Republicans say that they have a very/somewhat favorable view of Trump as well as roughly half of Kentucky Independents (who made up about 6% of all voters). If these patterns hold through next year, Trump is on track to win roughly 55% of the vote next year, give or take.

But what about the Kentucky Republicans who crossed party lines to vote for Andy Beshear last week? The CKEP survey showed that one in six Republicans (16%) voted for Beshear. Given the similarities of their campaigns and the governing styles of Trump and Bevin, would those same 16% be persuadable to vote for a Democrat for president in 2020?

Not necessarily. It turns out that Trump has a 55% favorability rating among those Republicans who voted for Democrat Andy Beshear for governor. Among that same group, only 42% view Biden favorably and 34% view Warren favorably.

Does favorability, though, translate into voting? The Boyle County portion of the KCEP asked voters whether they believed that various elected officials deserved reelection or whether it was time to give someone else a shot. Among Boyle County voters, 92% of those who view Trump favorably believe he deserves reelection compared to only 5% among those who view him unfavorably. So it’s fairly safe to assume that for President Trump, favorability and intention to vote are virtually interchangeable.

Let’s say roughly half of the Republican-Beshear voters (8% of all voters in Kentucky voters on Tuesday) who have an unfavorable view of Trump (45% of them) defect to the Democratic candidate in 2020. That’d put Trump somewhere around 51%-52%. This is definitely close, but still enough to win the state.

The bigger takeaway, in my view, is that Kentucky voters did not end up linking their views of Donald Trump and Matt Bevin in Tuesday’s election as strongly as either of them had intended and hoped for.

Mitch McConnell

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be running for reelection as Kentucky’s senior senator next year. The CKEP survey revealed that McConnell is not as popular as Donald Trump in his own home state. McConnell is viewed either somewhat or very favorably by 46% of Kentucky voters on Tuesday compared to 55% who say the same about President Trump.

Also, the link between favorability, partisanship, and reelection is a little weaker for Mitch McConnell than it is for Donald Trump.

For example, McConnell enjoys only about a 74% favorability rating among Kentucky Republican/leaners, 44% among Independents, and 11% among Democrats/leaners. Also, when we drill down into opinions on reelection among Boyle County voters specifically, a full 19% of those who view McConnell favorably think he should not be reelected. Also, one full third (31%) of Boyle County Republican/leaners think he should not be reelected.

As far as the link between attitudes toward McConnell and Trump, only 81% of those who view Trump favorably see McConnell favorably while 92% of those who view Trump unfavorably also view McConnell unfavorably.

Looking again at those Republican-Beshear voters which made up about 8% of the electorate on Tuesday, McConnell has a 62% unfavorability rating. If that same group is willing to cross party lines again next year (emphasis: a big ‘if’!), that’s potentially 10% of Kentucky Republicans (or 5% of everyone who voted this past Tuesday) who might be persuadable to support a Democrat in next year’s Kentucky senate race.

Of course, the odds are still in McConnell’s favor given that Kentucky is a red state and that he outperformed the October polls by about 6% in his last Senate race in 2014. It’s still an uphill battle for any Democrat looking to take on the nation’s Senate Majority Leader.

At the same time, McConnell’s support among Republicans and those who approve of President Trump is weaker than he would prefer going into an election year. Kentucky Democrats will be strongly motivated to knock him out and will likely turn out en masse to vote against President Trump as well in 2020.

This suggests that one good strategy for Kentucky Democrats might be to focus their efforts on the 16% of Republicans who were willing to cross party lines to vote for Beshear last week. The CKEP survey showed that nearly two in five of these (38%) were under age 40. It may be a smart move for the eventual Democratic nominee to focus his or her appeal on Kentucky’s younger voters.

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