Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes has regained a slim edge over Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky's U.S. Senate Race, according to a new Bluegrass Poll.
Grimes leads McConnell 46 percent to 44 percent in the poll of 632 likely voters, with Libertarian David Patterson getting support from 3 percent of respondents. Seven percent remain undecided.
The results remain well within the poll's margin of error of 4 percentage points, meaning either candidate's support could be four points higher or lower than the reported results.
A month ago, the Bluegrass Poll showed McConnell with a four-point advantage over Grimes. Such a dramatic swing in Grimes' favor should be viewed with caution by voters, said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.
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Grimes probably gained ground in September, Voss said, but the latest Bluegrass Poll "deviates pretty far" from numerous public polls released through mid-September that showed McConnell with a small but consistent lead over Grimes.
"It flies in the face of forecasts offered by all of the big media organizations, none of which give McConnell less than a two-thirds chance of winning," Voss said. "Some of the changes in the new poll look like random noise rather than a real shift in preferences. This rapid shift in the race must be taken with a grain of salt unless and until other independent polls back it up."
The Bluegrass Poll was conducted Sept. 29 to Oct. 2 by SurveyUSA for the Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV in Lexington, and The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville.
The largest shifts in Grimes' favor came among men, younger voters and in Eastern Kentucky.
Men, for example, favored McConnell by 10 points — 48 percent to 38 percent — in a Bluegrass Poll conducted in late August, but McConnell had only a one-point lead — 45 percent to 44 percent — among men in the latest survey. (Grimes also expanded her lead among women from one point in August to three points last week.)
Similarly, McConnell led among likely voters younger than 50 by five points a month ago (45 percent to 50 percent), but now trails Grimes in the same category by nine points (39 percent to 48 percent).
The poll also shows Grimes making huge strides in rural parts of the state, where she trailed by more than 20 points in late August. In the latest poll, her deficits in Eastern Kentucky and Western Kentucky shrank to 11 points and 15 points, respectively.
Her lead in the state's largest city also expanded. In the Louisville region, her margin over McConnell expanded from seven points in August to 16 points last week. Her lead in north-central Kentucky, which includes Lexington and much of Northern Kentucky, shrunk slightly, from nine points to seven.
Despite the gains made by Grimes, the survey saw little deterioration in voters' support for Republicans in general.
On the question of which political party would do a better job if it controlled the Senate, registered Kentucky voters chose Republicans over Democrats 47 percent to 42 percent, with 11 percent not sure. (If Republicans retake the Senate, McConnell is expected to become majority leader of the chamber.)
President Barack Obama also remains wildly unpopular in Kentucky, with a 29 percent favorable rating and a 55 percent unfavorable rating.
Like Obama, McConnell's favorable rating remains dismal, with 35 percent saying they view him favorably and 48 percent unfavorably. That compares to 36 percent favorable and 46 percent unfavorable last month.
Margie Williams, a poll respondent who agreed to a follow-up interview with the Herald-Leader, is a Republican who intends to vote for Grimes.
"If there had been a dogcatcher running against McConnell, I'd vote for the dogcatcher," said Williams, a retired schoolteacher in Wayne County. "I just don't like him. Never have."
Bruce Kliever, a semi-retired businessman in Oldham County, said he planned to vote for McConnell even though "I have no great liking for McConnell."
"I'll go with him over her because she will be for growing government," Kliever said.
Grimes is viewed favorably by 40 percent of voters and unfavorably by 39 percent, marginally improved from late August, when 38 percent had a favorable view of her and 37 percent had an unfavorable view.
The number of Democrats who said they planned to vote for Grimes increased five points during the past month, to 72 percent, while McConnell's support among Republicans remained at 79 percent.
The poll also tested how respondents viewed the core campaign messages of Grimes and McConnell. More than half of respondents said they agreed with Grimes' portrayal of McConnell as an out-of-touch incumbent who has been in Washington too long, while nearly half said they agreed with McConnell's description of Grimes as a rubber stamp for Obama's agenda.
When asked whether they agreed or disagreed that "Mitch McConnell has been in office for 30 years, and it's time for him to be replaced by someone else," 57 percent of respondents said they agreed. Thirty percent disagreed, and 13 percent weren't sure.
Poll respondent Diane Divine, a hairdresser in Jefferson County, said McConnell has had long enough in Washington to address Kentucky's problems.
"He's been there for 30 years, and our major problems, like jobs, remain," she said. "He may have helped some people here and there, but it's time somebody else was in there to take on our problems."
When poll respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed that "Alison Lundergan Grimes will simply vote for President Barack Obama's agenda, and Kentucky needs someone who would stand up to the president," 49 percent agreed. Thirty-seven percent disagreed, and 14 percent weren't sure.
Clay Cook, another poll respondent, said McConnell needed to be re-elected "because Grimes would just do whatever the president wants her to."
"I feel Grimes would back Obama and support his plans that are hurting Kentucky," said Cook, a retired factory worker in McCreary County. "I can't stand Obama. He's killing, coal and his health care plan will cost too much. Plus, McConnell has experience. Why give up all that experience and power for someone who is fairly new to politics?"
Although Voss, the UK political science professor, suggested caution when interpreting the latest poll results, he also rejected labeling the results "a total fluke."
Grimes' support "increased strongly among the same segment of the electorate targeted by her recent campaign strategy."
"She's enjoyed increased support among younger males, among conservative Democrats and among voters outside of the cities — the same voters who were expected to respond to the return of former President Clinton and to the symbolic nod to gun culture represented by her highly visible skeet-shooting advertisement," Voss said. "I doubt the polls would reveal such a systematic shift completely by coincidence, (so it is) likely Grimes has gained ground."
In the state's past two U.S. Senate elections, SurveyUSA showed similar tightening in polls in October that later gave way to large Republican margins of victory.
On Oct. 21, 2008, a SurveyUSA poll showed McCon nell and Democrat Bruce Lunsford tied at 48 percent apiece before McConnell went on to win, 53 percent to 45 percent.
In late September 2010, the same company found U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and Attorney General Jack Conway essentially tied, with Paul getting 49 percent and Conway getting 47 percent. Ultimately, Paul prevailed, 52 percent to 43 percent.
"People tend to answer poll questions with whatever facts or impulses tend to be handy, so they'll sway back and forth in the next month," Voss said. "But they approach the vote more seriously, and given the nature of the state, Grimes is still an underdog in that battle."
McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore said the latest Bluegrass Poll "is obviously an outlier."
"We're very comfortable with where this race stands and are confident Sen. McConnell will be re-elected in November," Moore said.
Grimes campaign manager Jonathan Hurst said the poll mirrored results released last week by the campaign's internal pollster.
"Throughout this campaign, Mitch McConnell has attempted to convince the Washington cocktail circuit and other pundits that this race is not close. However, today, Kentuckians made their voice heard," Hurst said.