Harry Enten | March 2, 2010
Topics: Arkansas Senate , Blanche Lincoln , Primary elections
With Lt. Governor Bill Halter entering the Democratic Senatorial primary in Arkansas, the first question most are asking is "can he win?" I think we can agree that Senator Blanche Lincoln faces almost unprecedented odds in the general election. How likely is a Halter victory? According to a January Mason-Dixon poll, Lincoln led Halter 52-34% in a hypothetical match-up. In addition, her approval rating among Democrats was only 51% (with 35% disapproving) in an early February Public Policy Polling poll. While these polls indicate that Lincoln is vulnerable to a primary challenge, I would argue the polls could be underselling her vulnerability.
As it stands right now, it is clear Halter is going to challenge Lincoln from the left, with Lincoln's position against the public option being the main issue. While the polling numbers gauging the public option in Arkansas are a little stale, we do know that a December Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll found that 84% of Democratic primary voters supported the public option. In a late October poll conducted by Research 2000 for the liberal Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America, 43% of Democratic voters said that if Lincoln did not support the public option, they would be less likely to vote for her.
Thus, if Halter can phrase the health care question correctly (public option vs. government run healthcare, etc.), I think Lincoln can be beaten on this one issue. Why do I believe this even though Halter is not winning already?
The idea of an ideological one issue primary makes me think back to the last big time Democratic Senatorial primary as it stood two months out.
Two months before the 2006 Connecticut Democratic Senatorial primary between Ned Lamont and Senator Joe Lieberman, a Quinnipiac poll headline read in part 'Anti-Bush, Anti-War Feeling Does Not Hurt Lieberman'. Quinnipiac found that 60% of Democrats approved of Joe Lieberman job performance. This relatively high approval from Democrats was despite 55% of Democrats knowing Lieberman supported the War in Iraq, 72% of Democrats wanting a decrease in the troops in Iraq, and 83% of Democrats believing that we should have never entered into the War. Why the disparity between support for Lieberman and support for the war? Only 12% of Democrats in this late April poll said a candidate's position on the war was the only issue they were voting on.
Flash forward two months to mid July and early August 2006 and the final three Quinnipiac polls for the Democratic primary. After two months of Ned Lamont hammering Lieberman over his support for the War in Iraq, the importance of the War as an issue rose dramatically and Lieberman's approval dropped among Democrats. In the final three polls, the percentage of voters who pledged to vote again Lieberman because of Iraq was 28%, 44%, and 36%. That's anywhere from a 16-32% jump from the late April polling, with the two higher percentages polled in the two weeks before the primary. In addition, Lieberman's approval dropped from 60% and a net approval of +29 in late April to an approval of 47% and net approval of +3% in mid July.
What am I getting at here? Voters in Connecticut did not seem so interested in voting for or against Lieberman based on the Iraq War, despite the overwhelming number of them opposed to it. Then another candidate (Lamont) breached the subject, and it began to unravel for Lieberman. His approval ratings took a dive, and the Iraq War that the primary voters were against become much more important in determining their votes.
In Arkansas, many Democrats have already indicated that they would be less likely to vote against Senator Lincoln because of her stance on the public option. If the prior polling on the public is correct (and Halter can frame the healthcare question as one of the "public option"), I would not be surprised to see her approval numbers take a dive due to another candidate (Halter) raising what is shaping up to be the signature issue of the primary (healthcare) and Lincoln's stance on it. Many Democratic voters in Arkansas may be unaware of her stance, and those that are may just need a little persuasion to make them vote on the issue. With the AFL-CIO and blogosphere pumping money into the state for Halter, voters will likely receive information about Lincoln's record on healthcare.
Of course, primaries are odd in nature. We cannot know how a primary electorate will react to a new candidate and his/her arguments, and Arkansas is no Connecticut.
Still, I would not be surprised if the next polling numbers out of Arkansas show Halter closing fast on Lincoln.