“BOOM!” Joni Ernst’s campaign spokesperson Gretchen Hamel tweeted when National Journal reporter, Emily Schultheis, noted that a the new USA Today/Suffolk University poll of the Iowa U.S. Senate race was a dead heat at 40 percent each.
Hamel’s enthusiastic response suggests that the results are encouraging for her candidate, and in many ways they are, but at some point, the Ernst campaign has to stop celebrating the fact that they are tied in the polls with their challenger, Democrat Congressman Bruce Braley.
Recent polls have shown Ernst either slightly ahead, slightly behind, or statistically tied with Braley. In fact, in the eight polls that have been conducted since the end of the primary, Ernst has led in three, been tied with Braley in four, and trailed him only once.
The euphoria of a tied race was understandable when the first polls following the five-way GOP primary showed Ernst actually leading Braley. Most Iowa Republicans share Hamel’s excitement regarding the latest poll results, but the general election campaign has now waged on for 86 days, and there are only 69 days remaining until Election Day. If Ernst is going to win Iowa’s coveted open U.S. Senate seat, she needs to start seeing some upward movement in the polls.
The top-lines of the recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll and the PPP Poll that came out earlier this week show a tied U.S. Senate race between Ernst and Braley. While a tied U.S. Senate race is no reason for Republicans to get down on their candidate, if you look deeper into these polls, you will find ample reasons to be concerned.
The relentless negative attacks against Ernst are clearly working. In the USA Today/Suffolk University poll, Ernst had a 41 percent favorable rating and a 41 percent unfavorable rating with respondents. That’s not a good sign, but the numbers in the PPP poll were even worse for Ernst. The PPP poll showed Ernst underwater in terms of favorability, with only 36 percent of respondents having a favorable opinion of her, while 46 percent had an unfavorable view of Ernst.
Braley isn’t all that likable either, but his favorability numbers are remarkably better than Ernst’s. USA Today/Suffolk had Braley’s favorable number at 41 percent, while 35 percent has a unfavorable view of him. The PPP poll was worse for Braley, 37 percent had a favorable view of him, while 41 percent viewed him unfavorably.
It’s the break down of the favorability numbers that should concern the Ernst campaign. In Polk County and central Iowa, Ernst’s brand is getting destroyed by all the negative ads. Only 35 percent of people polled in the USA Today/Suffolk survey had a favorable opinion of Ernst, while 52 percent had an unfavorable view of her. For all the talk about Braley’s gaffes and his poorly run campaign, it’s Ernst who is having difficulty appealing to voters in the largest population center in the state. As one would expect, Ernst does better in the western part of the state, having a plus four favorability rating in south west Iowa, and plus 15 favorability rating in north west Iowa.
On the other hand, Braley has a number of encouraging signs in favorability numbers within the USA Today/Suffolk University poll. Among female voters, Braley gets favorable marks from 42 percent of female respondents, while 32 percent have an unfavorable view of him. Braley also has a plus 11 favorability number in central Iowa, a plus 20 favorable rating in north east Iowa, which he represents, and a plus 11 favorability edge with independent voters.
While the top lines of the polls show a razor close race between Ernst and Braley, the crosstabs are telling another story that runs contrary to the perception of the race. This isn’t to say that Ernst’s campaign is doomed, but if she is to be successful in November, her campaign and the outside groups that are working to assist he candidacy need to be far more aggressive than they have been for the first three months of the general election campaign.
Sadly, it seems that the U.S. Senate race in Iowa isn’t going to be about who Iowans like, it’s going to be about who they don’t like. Thus, when a major poll shows Ernst’s unfavorable number at 46 percent and another at 41 percent, alarm bells should be sounding in the campaign office. That means that Ernst has to do a better job of responding to the negative attacks being run against her while at the same time doing what she can to be more likeable.
The polling data also seems to indicate that the negative attacks being run against Braley are not as effective as the ads being run against Ernst. Braley has been beaten up for the comments he made about Chuck Grassley, the incident involving his neighbor’s chickens, and missing hearings on the VA hospitals. Those are all valid hits, but what about Braley’s record in congress that includes support for taxpayer bailouts of the financial industry, stimulus spending that did little to reduce unemployment, and his failed promise to reduce the national debt?
The U.S. Senate campaign has been void of the issues that matter to most Iowans. Instead, the campaigns and special interest groups only use issues in which they can paint their opponent in a negative light. As has been the case in the past three elections, jobs are one of the top three issue for voters, as is the federal deficit, and healthcare.
Both U.S. Senate campaigns have avoided the current issues that are being discussed in the county. Neither candidate has weighed in on the immigration debate, U.S. involvement in the Middle East, or the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. The lack of focus on issues in the race may be the reason why Ernst slightly trails Braley when people are asked which candidate’s values most closely match your own. Ernst doesn’t really talk about moral issues, and when she did in a Washington Post interview earlier this month, Ernst ran to the middle instead of espousing the conservative ideals she campaigned on in the primary.
To date, the Ernst campaign has gotten a lot of mileage out of running a personality based campaign against Braley, but if these latest polls are accurate, that strategy has already run out of gas. Even if the race remains close until Election Day, Republicans have to worry that the Democrats early voting advantage might be big enough to deliver the victory for Braley.
While it is still early, absentee request by Democrats and no party voters are far exceeding Republican requests. This is once again a sign that Democrats are working their absentee program that has often times made the difference in close legislative races. If the U.S. Senate race remains a close contest, their ability to get no party voters to vote early for their candidates could make a big difference.
Again, the race between Ernst and Braley is tied, but there is tangible data that gives an advantage to Braley. It’s time for Republicans to kick it into gear. Nobody should be satisfied with the race being tied.
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