Will the West Memphis 3 case play a role in the upcoming First District Congressional election?
That is a topic explored with First District Democratic primary voters in the latest Talk Business-Hendrix College Poll. The survey, conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday April 24-25, 2012, involved 497 likely Democratic primary voters in Arkansas’ First Congressional District who said they plan to vote in the upcoming May 22 primary.
Questions related to the West Memphis 3 case were asked after our head-to-head match-up in the Democratic primary, which showed a huge swath of undecided voters and a small lead for Jonesboro prosecutor Scott Ellington.
The poll also only allowed voters who answered “yes” to the first question about the WM3 to proceed with additional answers.
The questions asked of voters were:
Q: Are you familiar with the West Memphis 3 case?
71% – Yes
29% – No
Q: (If Yes) Do you believe the three men originally convicted of the murders to be guilty or not guilty?
30% – Guilty
36.5% – Not guilty
34.5% – Don’t Know
Q: No matter your views on the previous question, do you think the prosecutor’s decision last year to free the West Memphis 3 under a guilty plea that allowed them to maintain their innocence was a good decision or a bad decision?
51.5% – Good decision
48.5% – Bad decision
Dr. Jay Barth, with the Hendrix College Department of Politics and International Relations, helped craft and analyze the poll. He offered this detailed analysis:
Since prosecutor Scott Ellington announced his intention to seek the Democratic nomination for the First Congressional District, the specter of the West Memphis 3 case has surrounded the race.
Ellington was the prosecutor who made the Alford plea deal that allowed the three young men convicted of the brutal 1993 murders of three young West Memphis boys to go free in exchange for admitting guilt (while maintaining their claim of innocence). Observers of the district’s politics have been unclear on the impact of the case on the primary vote and, if Ellington gains the nomination, on the general election.
The Talk Business-Hendrix College poll provides some glimpse at the way that the district’s Democratic voters view the case and how it links to their views of the candidates for Congress.
Over 70 percent of Democratic voters are familiar with the case, although older voters (those over 65) are less likely to have familiarity with it (only 61 percent of that age group know of the case). Those who do have familiarity with the case are divided on the guilt of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr.
Just over a third of those who plan to vote in the Democratic primary believe the three to be not guilty of the crime (36.5%), while 30 percent believe them to be guilty; one third of respondents are unsure of their guilt or innocence.
The voters are nearly split evenly on Ellington’s decision to make a deal with 51.5% agreeing with the decision and 48.5% thinking it was the wrong action. On the prosecutor’s decision, the key force in determining attitudes about whether or not it was a good idea is the perception about whether the men are guilty or not; just at 80% of those who believe them to be innocent agree with the deal while 83.5 of those who believe in their guilt oppose it.
Interesting demographic patterns show themselves on these questions.
Men, older voters, and African-Americans are more likely to believe the WM3 to be guilty. Although less emphatic, those same patterns generally hold on the decision of Ellington to make a deal in the case. On the latter question, an ideological divide shows itself with conservative Democratic voters more opposed to the deal and progressive and moderate voters more supportive.
Now, to the political impact of the case on the 2012 Democratic primary election.
While it is important to note that a vast majority of probable voters remain unclear of their vote in the congressional primary, Ellington voters are most likely to agree with the prosecutor’s decision to make a deal. It seems likely that these voters’ support for Ellington is driving them to that view rather than the other way around because it is Clark Hall voters who are actually most likely to believe Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley not guilty of the crimes; Ellington voters split down the middle on that issue.
The overall divisiveness of the issue in the district where the crimes occurred means that it is unlikely for the case the be a major force in deciding the outcome of the primary.
The poll was conducted by Talk Business Research and Hendrix College on Tuesday and Wednesday, April 24-25, 2012. The poll, which has a margin of error of +/-4.4%, was completed using IVR survey technology among 497 likely Democratic voters in Arkansas’ First Congressional District.
Participants were selected from a database of district voters who have voted in some or all of the last 5 Democratic primary elections and who affirmatively answered a question that they intended to vote in the Democratic primary on May 22, 2012.
All media outlets are welcome to reprint, reproduce, or rebroadcast information from this poll with proper attribution to Talk Business and Hendrix College.
For interviews, Barth can be contacted at [email protected].