IA-01: Is the Democratic primary Pat Murphy's to lose?

By some measures, the race for the Democratic nomination in Iowa’s first Congressional district looks wide open. All five candidates have raised enough money to run credible campaigns. None are rookie candidates: four have been elected multiple times to either local government or the state legislature, and the fifth has prior experience running for Congress.  

For various reasons, I’ve long felt that former Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy was best positioned to win the Democratic nomination, whether it’s decided in the June 3 primary or at an IA-01 district convention (if no candidate wins at least 35 percent of the primary votes).

Last week Murphy’s campaign released partial results from an internal poll showing a “commanding lead” against his four Democratic rivals. I’ve enclosed the polling memo below, along with a few thoughts on its findings and the dynamic in this race going forward.

Myers Research surveyed 400 “likely Democratic primary voters” across IA-01 between February 11 and 13, producing a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent. Live telephone interviewers conducted the poll. In the initial ballot test, Murphy led the Democratic field with 36 percent support, followed by 17 percent for Cedar Rapids City Council member Monica Vernon, 13 percent for former State Senator Swati Dandekar, 11 percent for State Representative Anesa Kajtazovic, and 8 percent for Cedar Rapids-based attorney Dave O’Brien.

Murphy had higher name recognition than his rivals, and most respondents who were familiar with him had positive feelings about him. After “a balanced exercise simulating Murphy’s, Vernon’s, Dandekar’s and Kajtazovic’s positive messages,” Murphy’s support measured 40 percent to 20 percent for Vernon, 12 percent each for Dandekar and Kajtazovic, and 5 percent for O’Brien.

I generally view internal polls skeptically, since we only see what candidates want us to see. The polling memo enclosed below does not provide question wordings or the question order. I would be very interested to see how the pollster framed its “positive messages” about Murphy and the candidates. It’s not clear how Myers Research identified “likely primary voters”–no easy task four months in advance.  

On the other hand, I don’t see any reason to dismiss this poll as implausible. Murphy has been politically active in northeast Iowa and has held elective office longer than the other candidates, so it stands to reason that he would be better known. Three candidates based in Cedar Rapids are preventing anyone from consolidating support in IA-01’s largest metro area. Three women in the field are splitting the votes of Iowa Democrats who are highly motivated to a woman to Congress. The former Republican Vernon and the conservative-leaning Dandekar are competing for the same moderate/problem-solver niche.

It’s also worth noting that Vernon’s campaign hasn’t released any poll numbers, even though its fourth-quarter financial report included a $10,000 payment for “research” to Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, a Democratic polling firm. Presumably we would have heard about it if Vernon’s campaign had any polling to suggest she’s in a strong position. I don’t know whether any other candidates have conducted internal polls; both the Dandekar and O’Brien campaigns have spent a substantial amount on political consulting, but I couldn’t see any direct spending on polling.

If Murphy does have the “commanding lead” his campaign claims, the question is what, if anything, the other candidates can do about it. In a two-person race, the obvious strategy would be for the underdog to start building a case against the front-runner. But negative campaigning in a large field is risky. Whoever takes the first shot at Murphy may or may not draw blood, and even if his support declines, voters may gravitate toward someone other than whoever “went negative.”

I also don’t see an obvious line of attack against Murphy. “It’s time to send a woman to Congress” would work better if only one woman were in the field. You could argue that the Iowa House should have accomplished more with a Democratic majority under his leadership (and you’d be correct), but most of the labor unions aren’t holding a grudge on that score.

Both O’Brien and Kajtazovic are highlighting progressive policy stands in their campaign communications, but Murphy can match them on most issues, such as wanting to extend unemployment benefits and protect Social Security. Compared to O’Brien and Kajtazovic, he can point to more political accomplishments, like helping to raise Iowa’s minimum wage and standing up against repeated attempts to roll back marriage equality after the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling in Varnum v Brien. He also has the endorsement of the Blue America PAC, which supports progressives in Democratic primaries around the country. Beating Murphy in this primary by running to his left will not be easy.

To take this nomination, someone else will need to poll more votes than Murphy on June 3, not merely hold the front-runner below the 35 percent threshold. I can’t see any other candidate building a winning coalition at a district convention. No one else has spent as much time building relationships with Democratic activists in northeast Iowa. In addition, Murphy has 16 labor union endorsements, compared to one each for Vernon and Kajtazovic.

From where I’m sitting, the IA-01 primary does indeed look like Murphy’s to lose. Feel free to tell me why I’m wrong in the comments, or share any thoughts about this race.

P.S. – The winner of this primary will be favored to win the general election to succeed Bruce Braley, but IA-01 is not a lock for Democrats. The latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office indicate that IA-01 contains 158,970 active registered Democrats, 133,746 Republicans, and 192,496 no-party voters. Braley almost lost the 2010 election to Ben Lange, even though Democrats outnumbered Republicans in IA-01 by about 32,000 at that time.

Murphy for Congress press release, February 19:

Poll Shows Murphy in Strong Position in Race to Succeed Braley

Dubuque -Democrat Pat Murphy’s campaign for Congress released a poll today showing a commanding lead in the Democratic primary campaign for Iowa’s First Congressional District. The poll shows that Murphy is better known, has higher favorable ratings, and has a message that resonates more with Iowa Democrats than any of his opponents.

In the initial vote, the poll conducted February 11-13th, shows Pat Murphy receiving 36 percent, more than doubling that of his closest rival. After all participants receive positive messages about Murphy and his opponents, Murphy jumps to a 20-point lead.

Aaron Bly, Campaign Manager for Pat Murphy said, “This poll confirms what Pat Murphy supporters have said from the beginning – Iowa Democrats want a representative who they can trust to fight for working families and Democratic values.  Pat Murphy is the only candidate with a record of doing just.  We’re excited about these results, but our campaign is focused on a grassroots effort to reach out to voters everyday to talk about what we can do to grow more opportunity in Iowa.”

Pat’s campaign has also received 16 labor union endorsements, most recently the endorsement of the Iowa State Council of Machinists.  He also has the endorsement of several progressive organizations, hundreds of Democratic activists, and community leaders throughout the district.

Pat’s broad support, along with the fact that the top three candidates in the race were virtually tied in cash on hand resources at the last filing, put him in the strongest position to win the Democratic primary in June.

Below and attached is a memo outlining the survey conducted by Myers Research & Strategic Services.

Pat Murphy polling memo photo PatMurphypollmemo_zps15be0706.jpg

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