If Iowans were voting for governor today, 43 percent would support Democrat Fred Hubbell and 41 percent Governor Kim Reynolds, according to a new poll by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register and Mediacom. Another 9 percent of the 555 likely voters surveyed were undecided, and 7 percent backed Libertarian Jake Porter. The poll validates the view of leading election forecasters that the governor’s race is a toss-up. Selzer’s poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 points.
If this snapshot of the race accurately reflects the views of Iowans likely to vote in November, I’d rather be Hubbell than Reynolds. An incumbent barely above 40 percent despite much higher name recognition than her opponent is not in a strong position. Nevertheless, the Register’s survey points to ways either Reynolds or Hubbell could improve their prospects during the final six weeks of the campaign.
PROMISING FINDINGS FOR HUBBELL
Given the natural advantages of incumbency, any lead for a challenger–even within the margin of error–is good news. Iowa Public Television producer Andrew Batt noted on Twitter that the last time a Democratic candidate for governor in Iowa was ahead in a Selzer poll was in October 2006, when Chet Culver led Jim Nussle. Hubbell’s campaign manager Michelle Gajewski replied that at this point of the 2006 campaign, Selzer’s survey showed the nominees for governor tied at 44 percent each.
Brianne Pfannenstiel’s write-up for the Des Moines Register pointed to other promising findings for Hubbell.
• He’s slightly ahead even though 30 percent of likely voters don’t know enough about him to have an opinion. The governor is far better-known; conventional wisdom holds that Hubbell has more room to grow his support.
• 42 percent of likely voters have a favorable view of the Democratic nominee, just 27 percent unfavorable.
• He leads among respondents affiliated with neither party by 40 percent to 34 percent, with 12 percent backing Porter and 14 percent unsure.
• Among respondents who said they didn’t vote in the 2014 midterm election, 41 percent back Hubbell, just 31 percent Reynolds. Pfannenstiel added, “Selzer said that could be an indication he’s drawing support beyond the traditional Democratic base, from people who are not regular midterm voters.”
The poll also suggests that Hubbell’s main criticisms of Reynolds resonate with politically-engaged Iowans. 51 percent of likely voters said it’s a “big problem” that Reynolds “has not addressed problems with privatizing Medicaid”; 19 percent said that was a little problem and only 17 percent said it wasn’t true. Similarly, 51 percent said it’s a big problem that Reynolds “has mismanaged the budget and shortchanged needed government services such as education and health care.” Another 12 percent said that was a little problem and 28 percent said it wasn’t true. More context from Pfannenstiel:
Nearly half of likely voters who support Reynolds say her handling of the issue [Medicaid] is a problem, with 17 percent calling it a “big problem” and 32 percent calling it a “little problem.” About a third — 35 percent — say it is not true that there is a problem, and 16 percent are unsure.
“When a candidate’s own supporters think something is a problem, it is a problem the campaign cannot ignore,” Selzer said.
Sixty-nine percent of independents say they believe it’s a problem, with a majority — 52 percent — calling it a “big problem.”
If Reynolds had acknowledged last year that Medicaid privatization wasn’t working out and ended the state’s contracts with for-profit insurers, she’d probably be comfortably ahead of Hubbell now. Either she didn’t grasp the facts well enough or she lacked the political courage to make a clean break from her mentor Terry Branstad on this policy (or anything else).
Selzer’s findings give Hubbell good reason to keep bashing Medicaid privatization in public appearances and tv ads. Several of his commercials have focused on the issue. The most devastating was “Tucker’s story”:
To win over the 30 percent who don’t know enough about Hubbell to have an opinion, he should also raise his own profile in a positive way. I’d like to see a mix of positive and negative spots during the next month and a half, not an ad campaign solely focused on how Reynolds has failed to do her job well.
PROMISING FINDINGS FOR REYNOLDS
The Selzer poll isn’t a disaster for governor by any means. While she’d obviously prefer to be above 50 percent or at least ahead of her challenger, Reynolds has some material to work with, namely:
• Though her approval rating has slipped since last December, she is still in positive territory: 46 percent approve of her work, 38 percent disapprove.
• About 47 percent of respondents say things in Iowa are moving in the right direction, while 42 percent say the state’s on the wrong track and 11 percent weren’t sure. The Register reported that finding for all 801 Iowa adults surveyed; it would be interesting to know how the 555 likely voters answered the same question.
• Some 32 percent of respondents who said they would vote for Hubbell if the election were held today also said they could be persuaded to change their minds.
• Nearly two-thirds of respondents said it was a problem that Hubbell “has withheld information about his taxes that could reveal conflicts of interest.” 36 percent said that was a “big problem,” 30 percent said a little problem, and just 17 percent didn’t think it was true. Bleeding Heartland discussed here Hubbell’s decision to release only summary information from his 2017 taxes, rather than full returns from the last several years.
Reynolds has limited opportunity to raise her own favorables, since most Iowans have formed an opinion of her. In contrast, 43 percent of all Iowans surveyed and 30 percent of the likely voter subsample didn’t know much about Hubbell. The governor’s best chance is to drive up her challenger’s negatives. The tax return controversy looks like the most promising angle. From Pfannenstiel’s article:
A firm majority of Hubbell’s supporters — 57 percent — say it’s a problem that he has withheld information about his tax returns that could reveal conflicts of interest. That includes 22 percent who call it a “big problem” and 35 percent who say it’s a “small problem.”
Twenty-nine percent of his supporters don’t believe the claim is true, and 14 percent are unsure.
Independents are more likely than supporters to think Hubbell’s failure to release his full tax returns is problematic: 68 percent call it a problem, with 37 percent saying it’s a “big problem.”
Among all likely voters, two-thirds say it’s a problem for Hubbell not to release more of his tax information.
Earlier this week, the Reynolds campaign released a tv ad called “Protecting his money,” raising questions about what might be hiding in Hubbell’s tax returns. Iowans living in one of the state’s major media markets are sure to see much more along these lines.
I also expect at least one Reynolds commercial will highlight the fact that Hubbell was fined after improperly claiming a homestead tax credit in the state of Arizona for several years. A forthcoming Bleeding Heartland post will discuss competing claims about unethical actions by Hubbell and Reynolds.
Only 25 percent of likely voters said it’s a big problem that Hubbell “does not understand the needs of ordinary Iowans because of his enormous wealth.” Another 24 percent said that was a little problem, while 40 percent didn’t think it was true. The GOP’s talking points about “Prince Frederick” don’t seem to be resonating as widely. The Reynolds campaign is still running radio spots about Hubbell closing Younkers stores in small Iowa cities during the 1980s. I would guess they have squeezed as much out of that line of attack as they can; Selzer’s poll showed 22 percent of likely voters think it’s a big problem and 29 percent a little problem.
In addition to giving voters reasons to reject her opponent, Reynolds needs strong GOTV to mobilize Iowans who support her. Her favorability is better among all Iowa adults Selzer surveyed (45 percent favorable/37 percent unfavorable) than among the subsample of likely voters (47 percent favorable/46 percent unfavorable).
A quick word about Porter: to my knowledge, no poll of an Iowa governor’s race has ever shown a Libertarian at 7 percent. Granted, polls tend to overstate support for third-party candidates. But Porter only needs 2 percent of the vote in November for Libertarians to maintain full political party status in Iowa for another two years.
Final note for readers interested in Iowa polls: if you missed it in June, check out my interview with J. Ann Selzer about her sampling method.