We continue another round of surveys from Talk Business and Hendrix College. Today, we set some baselines for the statewide constitutional races, while testing a theory advanced by Gov. Mike Beebe about the "generic ballot" lead that Arkansas Republicans have over state Democrats at this stage of the election.
In several of our polls, we’ve seen Republicans with double-digit advantages over Democratic opponents, but how strong is political party affiliation in helping voters make decisions about candidates, particularly when voters have "no opinion" of those candidates?
"Apparently, it’s pretty strong," said Talk Business executive editor Roby Brock. "Party identification produces sizable leads for Republicans at this juncture of the general election cycle, but if you remove the party labels you get much different results with Democrats leading opponents as well as a much larger undecided voting bloc."
Talk Business and Hendrix College conducted two separate polls of the races for Lt. Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Treasurer of State, Auditor of State and Commissioner of State Lands.
"Interestingly, while party labels will be on the ballot on November 2nd, you’re unlikely to see many candidates use their party affiliation in their general election advertising," said Brock. "Republicans and Democrats alike typically avoid using a party label in their paid messaging to reach undecided voters," Brock added while noting recent commercials aired by candidates Joyce Elliott (D), John Boozman (R), Chad Causey (D), and Jim Keet (R).
"Will voters make up their minds about candidates without full knowledge of their party affiliations or will they wait until Election Day and make their choices based purely on party loyalty? The results of these two polls could shape Republican and Democratic strategies in these final weeks of the campaign," he said.
Dr. Jay Barth, with the Hendrix College Department of Politics and International Relations, helped craft and analyze the two polls. He offered the following observations:
As a series of polls have been released in Arkansas in recent months, questions have been raised about whether the results simply reflect a “generic ballot” advantage that favors the Republican party. Indeed, in a recent interview the Democratic party’s standard bearer in state elections, Governor Mike Beebe acknowledged Republican candidates’ advantage but expressed his hope that once candidates are better known that disadvantage would disappear: “What I fear for and worry about are those candidates who don’t have a lot of name recognition. What I’m hopeful for is that they will get their messages out, they’ll get known to a number of voters … that they’ll overcome any generic reaction one way or another.”
We decided to test the Governor’s hypothesis in an innovative polling experiment. Within the same week, we ran two different polls on statewide voters’ preferences for candidates for the constitutional offices below governor. In one poll, candidates were identified with their party (as will be the case on the November ballot). In the other poll, candidates were listed without their party (as will be the case in almost all advertising between now and that election). The differences were striking and seem to confirm Beebe’s notion that much of the advantage shown for Republican candidates is driven by reactions to the two parties rather than the candidates. To be determined is whether those Democratic candidates can successfully break through and identify themselves to voters as “candidates who happen to be Democrats” rather than “Democratic candidates.”
The comparative results showed, first, that voters are highly dependent upon party cues in determining their vote preferences. A long line of political science literature has indicated the power of party in shaping preferences and that this is a particularly powerful force in races where there is little other information about candidates. And, much literature on election surveys has debated whether it is more accurate to use party labels or not in identifying candidates. It’s clear that both strategies introduce bias into the results in situations where voters lack information about the candidates.
In our surveys, the percentage of voters who are undecided grows immensely when the party labels are removed. The percentage of undecided voters ranges from 17.6 percent to 44.1 percent across the six races when party labels are included, but range from 42.6 percent to 72.1 percent when the labels are excluded. The two races that have the smallest increases in undecideds are those for Attorney General and State Auditor. Each race includes a Democrat who is in a high-profile position (Attorney General Dustin McDaniel) or has been on the ballot numerous times in the state (Secretary of State Charlie Daniels). In those races, voters have other cues — namely their views on McDaniel or Daniels — to employ in the place of political party.
The Republican advantage in the three contests where they are fielding candidates seem clear in the results using party labels. Republicans Mark Darr, Mark Martin, and John Thurston lead their races for Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, and Land Commissioner by 17, 18, and 25 points, respectively. Martin is able to achieve the 50% mark in his race against Democratic Pulaski County Clerk Pat O’Brien. These results indicate that the Republican party may well have missed a tremendous opportunity in its failure to shift candidates from the competitive U.S. Senate and congressional primaries into races for the other three positions (Treasurer Martha Shoffner shows herself to be in a particularly fragile position). In the three races with current officeholders, Green candidates are the sole opposition to the Democrats. Even still, all three Democratic incumbents are held below 40% (although all have double-digit leads).
But, a starkly different picture emerges in the Democratic-Republican matchups when party labels are removed. All three Democratic candidates see their deficits turn into advantages, although they remain a long way from 50%. O’Brien goes from an 18 point deficit to a 10 point lead; Broadway goes from a 17 point disadvantage to a 5 point lead; and newcomer L.J. Bryant goes from a 25 point deficit to a 6 point lead in his race.
Thus, between now and the election, if these campaigns are framed as partisan battles, Republicans are strikingly advantaged. However, if the races are framed as a choice between individual candidates, Democrats have a chance to maintain their winning position in statewide balloting in the state. Let the framing battle begin.
These polls were conducted by Talk Business Research and Hendrix College using IVR survey technology on registered Arkansas voters statewide who indicated they were "likely" to vote in the November 2, 2010 general election. The polls were weighted by age and ethnicity. Additional details regarding each poll, the dates surveyed, their sample sizes and margins of error are available on the poll documents (see links above).
All media outlets are welcome to reprint, reproduce, or rebroadcast information from these polls with proper attribution to Talk Business and Hendrix College.
For interviews, Brock can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Barth can be contacted at email@example.com.