Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might be in serious trouble in Kentucky, according to a new poll. Or it may be very early in a race between an unknown elected official and an incumbent who's shown few reservations about hitting potential opponents very hard and very often. Just ask Ashley Judd.
According to the poll from the (generally Democratic) Public Policy Polling, McConnell and his most likely competitor, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, are essentially tied, each receiving support from 45 percent of the state. It's a toss-up! Only, it isn't, even though that's being reported all over today. There are a few indicators that McConnell doesn't need to worry much more about this than about, say, someone bugging his office and leaking the recordings online.
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This is the result of the "head-to-head," asking poll respondents directly who they prefer. In graph form, it looks like this.
The reason for the close contest can be seen in another set of questions, in which respondents were asked how favorably or unfavorably they viewed each candidate. As you can see below, McConnell has a much higher unfavorability rating — in fact, more people view him unfavorably than favorably.
But there's another way of looking at that data. It's like this:
In this case, we see that the plurality of respondents don't have an opinion on Grimes. Meaning that her favorable/unfavorable ratings, a genuinely useful guide to how a politician is likely to fare, will almost certainly change dramatically over the course of a campaign. If the election were held tomorrow, Grimes might tie him. But it won't be.
Here's one way of thinking this. If you can name the Secretary of State for the state in which you live, congratulations. You're almost certainly in the minority. (Don't believe us? Ask anyone around you.) Grimes has been in that role for about a year-and-a-half, during which time a full 42 percent of the state has formed no opinion of her. How she is perceived by the public is largely an open question, in other words — and it's one that could be defined by McConnell (with his deep pockets and his opposition research-performing staffers, not to mention the national party machine) as easily as by Grimes' campaign. If she runs. Before she makes up her mind, you can expect McConnell's team to start hammering her record, as he did with Judd.
It's a situation that largely parallels that of Anthony Weiner in New York City. A new poll shows Weiner gaining on his competitors for the Democratic nomination for mayor. Most of Weiner's competitors aren't well known by voters. The one who is, Christine Quinn, leads Weiner both in the polls and in favorable/unfavorable rankings. If Weiner were running against one person not named "Christine," he'd be in much better position. He could define his opponent for voters and rely on his name recognition to help. As it is, however, he's starting from a very weak position.
One final note on the McConnell/Grimes poll. The comparison of favorability ratings isn't apples to apples. Respondents were asked about their opinion of McConnell's job performance, not him. Which means that he may be unfairly weighted with the unpopularity of Congress or of certain policy positions. Totally fair data point — but different than asking about voters' opinions of Grimes as a person. Had PPP asked for their opinion of Grimes' job performance, it's possible that she would have done worse. And it's a near-certainty that far more than 40 percent would have had no idea how to respond.