Kentucky voters trust Republicans over Democrats on the economy and think last year's $787 billion economic stimulus package failed, according to the latest Kentucky Poll.
The findings bode poorly for Democratic candidates in the fall congressional elections because poll respondents said the economy and government spending are the two issues most likely to sway their votes.
President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress regularly praise the stimulus — much of which is flowing to state and local governments — for helping staunch the nation's losses during the recession. More than $2.6 billion had gone to Kentucky as of March 31.
But in the statewide telephone survey of 600 likely voters this week, 43 percent said the stimulus hurt the economy and 19 percent said it had no effect. Only 13 percent said it helped, while 16 percent said it prevented the economy from getting worse. Nine percent weren't sure.
Half of Democrats said the stimulus helped the economy or prevented it from getting worse, compared to 8 percent of Republicans and 21 percent of independents.
The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points. It was conducted May 2 to 4 by Research 2000 of Olney, Md., on behalf of the Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV of Lexington and WAVE-TV in Louisville.
Asked who they trust to do a better job of handling the economy, 46 percent chose Republicans, 35 percent chose Democrats and 19 percent said they weren't sure. Even among Democrats, 15 percent said they trust Republicans more and 24 percent weren't sure.
Nineteen months ago, only 32 percent of Kentucky Poll respondents said they trusted Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell to handle the economy better than his opponent at the time, Democrat Bruce Lunsford. Thirty-one percent trusted Lunsford, and 37 percent didn't know who to trust.
"I think this reflects a lot of the frustration and concern about what's coming out of Washington and Frankfort over the last year, about the amount of money the government is spending while the economy has not really improved for most people," said Kentucky Republican Party chairman Steve Robertson.
The stimulus helped by letting state and local governments continue to provide services with minimal disruption from the recession, said Christopher Jepsen, associate director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Kentucky.
Last month, for example, Kentucky officials credited the latest installment of stimulus funds — $176 million from the U.S. Department of Education — for helping to prevent teacher layoffs by cash-strapped school districts.
But voters can't see the layoffs and other losses that didn't happen, so they don't appreciate what the stimulus did, Jepsen said.
"I think things would have been even worse in the short-term had the stimulus not passed. I don't know that it made the economy improve so much as it made the decline less than it would have been otherwise," he said. "Of course, the flip side of that is that we went even deeper into debt, and we're not going to know the full effects of that for a while."
The poll showed that Kentuckians are worried about their own prospects. Asked about their family's financial situation for the next year, 39 percent said they were pessimistic, 38 percent weren't sure and 23 percent said they were optimistic.
That is slightly worse than how voters responded two years ago in the same poll. In May 2008, 36 percent said they were pessimistic about their family's financial situation, 39 percent weren't sure and 25 percent said they were optimistic. During the interim, unemployment in Kentucky rose from 6.6 percent to 10.7 percent.
Also working against Democratic candidates this year, most voters said the government is overreaching, a sentiment commonly expressed by the conservative Tea Party movement.
Fifty-six percent of Kentucky voters said the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Thirty-two percent said the government should do more to solve "our problems." Twelve percent weren't sure.
This essentially matches national voters' response to the same question last summer when asked in a Gallup Poll: 57 percent said government is doing too much and 38 percent said it should do more. Only once in the last 15 years did Gallup record a majority of Americans who wanted more government action, in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Democratic leaders need more aggressively to explain their successes to voters, said Kentucky Democratic Party chairman Charlie Moore.
"The Republicans have done a better job of erasing from the memory of the voters what dire and desperate condition the economy was in when President Obama took office last year," Moore said.
"I don't think anyone can deny that our economy is now finally on an upswing," Moore said. "Unless people realize the gains that have been made in shoring up the economy, clearly this is going to be a challenge for us."
But Robertson, the GOP chairman, said Democrats will be judged for the economy as it stands this fall, not the economy of summer 2008 or the hypothetical economy without a stimulus that Democrats describe.
"The Democrats, whether it's President Obama or Congress or Governor Beshear, they never want to own up to their actions," Robertson said. "The voters are realizing that. They're saying, 'Look, this is your watch now. You're just putting us deeper in debt and making the problems even worse.'"