Surprising Iowa poll reflects Kim Reynolds' divisive leadership

The latest Iowa poll by Selzer & Co. for the Des Moines Register and Mediacom indicates that the governor's race is far closer than many politics-watchers expected. Governor Kim Reynolds leads Democratic challenger Deidre DeJear by just 51 percent to 43 percent, with 5 percent unsure and 1 percent saying they would not vote. The survey did not mention Libertarian candidate Rick Stewart, who has filed nominating papers and will appear on the general election ballot.

The poll of 612 likely voters was in the field from February 28 to March 2 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent. Reynolds received national media attention for delivering the Republican response to President Joe Biden's State of the Union address on March 1.

The relatively small lead for an incumbent against a little-known challenger points to a downside of Reynolds' governing style, which has been to pursue extreme positions on controversial issues while shutting out opposing views.

The Des Moines Register's Brianne Pfannenstiel wrote up some key findings from the new Iowa Poll. Reynolds' approval rating was 49 percent among respondents, down slightly from 51 percent in Selzer's November 2021 poll. Her disapproval number was 44 percent (43 percent in the previous poll).

Reynolds is still in positive territory for favorability as well: 50 percent favorable/42 percent unfavorable. That said, those numbers are worse than what Selzer found in November (55 percent favorable/40 percent unfavorable).

Any poll is just a snapshot in time, and it's always an open question whether a small movement reflects a change in public opinion or merely a different survey sample. But the most striking finding, in my opinion, can't easily be explained away.

Only 31 percent of respondents know enough about DeJear to have an opinion, and those split roughly down the middle (16 percent view her favorably, 15 percent unfavorably). That's no surprise, since DeJear hasn't spent any significant amount of money on advertising to raise her name ID.

Here's the jaw-dropping number:

DeJear’s lack of name identification isn’t hurting her in a potential head-to-head matchup with Reynolds, according to the poll. Among those who say they would vote for DeJear, 61% say they do not know enough about her to form an opinion.

I don't think I've ever seen so many survey respondents say they are ready to vote for someone they know little about. Those 61 percent of DeJear's 43 percent (about 27 percent of all poll respondents) might be called an "anyone but Reynolds" bloc.

The governor still takes many advantages into her re-election campaign. She leads among independents surveyed (49 percent to 41 percent). The national political environment is likely to favor Republicans in November. Her nearly $5 million war chest can pay for strong GOTV and a lot of advertising to improve her favorability and attempt to define DeJear in a negative way.

Nevertheless, she may struggle to persuade those "anyone but Reynolds" voters. I suspect that is the price of a governing style which has consistently favored division over consensus.

Reynolds cheered when her mentor Governor Terry Branstad stripped collective bargaining rights from hundreds of thousands of public employees and lowered the minimum wage for tens of thousands of workers. She signed what was then the country's most extreme abortion ban, even though polls consistently show a majority of Iowans are pro-choice. She has pushed for diverting public funds to private schools and pandered to white grievance by bragging about banning "Critical Race Theory," which has never been taught in any K-12 school. She has never invited Democratic lawmakers to her regular breakfast meetings with Republicans and hasn't even pretended to seek Democratic input on important policies such as tax code changes.

Reynolds also refused to acknowledge Joe Biden as the legitimate winner of the 2020 presidential election. She praised a Texas lawsuit that sought to throw out tens of millions of votes and lent credibility to false claims about fraud and irregularities.

Many governors around the country have enjoyed their highest approval ratings during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Reynolds repeatedly adopted an "us vs. them" posture, resisting statewide mitigation policies and squashing local efforts to slow the spread. She did everything she could to prevent schools from following CDC guidance on masking, social distancing, and quarantines. She didn't listen to top experts at the University of Iowa or even the Trump White House Coronavirus Task Force. She didn't allow the state's public health department to recommend face coverings, even on a voluntary basis. After promoting COVID-19 vaccinations for a few months, she pivoted to depicting vaccine refusers as principled heroes.

Iowa's governor rarely listens to constituents who don't already align with her views. The most recent example came only a few days ago. She didn't meet with any transgender teens or their parents before signing a bill that thrilled straight white conservative Christians but will severely harm LGBTQ Iowans, especially transgender youth.

UPDATE: I forgot to share this link to Morning Consult's polling of all governors' approval ratings in November 2021. Reynolds was in the bottom ten with 49 percent job approval. Lots of governors were at 55 percent or above; eleven had approval numbers of at least 60 percent. Reynolds could be one of those if she had approached her job differently.

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