Kentucky's U.S. Senate race remains a dead heat two weeks before Election Day, with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell regaining the slimmest of leads over Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in a new Bluegrass Poll.
The poll of 655 likely voters found McConnell leading Grimes 44 percent to 43 percent. Libertarian David Patterson received 5 percent support, drawing voters from across the political spectrum. Eight percent were undecided.
In a Bluegrass Poll released two weeks ago, Grimes led McConnell by two points. In late August, the Bluegrass Poll showed McConnell with a four-point lead.
The latest survey was conducted Oct. 15 to 19 by SurveyUSA on behalf of the Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV in Lexington and The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
Never miss a local story.
The small shift in McConnell's favor brings the SurveyUSA poll back in line with several others in recent weeks that have shown McConnell with narrow but steady leads.
Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said the last three Bluegrass Polls have been a bit "like the Three Bears."
"The first one may have been too hot for McConnell. The next one was almost certainly too cold, resembling no other polling in the race," Voss said. "This one looks just about right, when compared to other polling data."
The latest poll findings don't appear to reflect any surge in support for McConnell, but instead suggest a drop in support for Grimes.
For the first time in five months, Grimes' favorable rating is underwater, with 40 percent of the 745 registered voters surveyed viewing her favorably and 43 percent unfavorably.
Support for Grimes dipped most dramatically among self-identified independents, voters under 50 and voters in north-central Kentucky, a region that includes the Lexington area and Northern Kentucky.
Among independents, which made up only 14 percent of the likely voters surveyed, McConnell holds a three-point advantage over Grimes. Less than three weeks ago, Grimes held a 13-point lead among independents.
Among voters under 50, which made up 46 percent of the likely voters surveyed, Grimes holds a one-point lead over McConnell, down from a nine-point lead earlier this month.
McConnell pulled even with Grimes in north-central Kentucky, a region she had led by seven points in the last poll. Likely voters in that region made up 33 percent of those surveyed.
Grimes also saw her popularity dip sharply in the region.
In the early October Bluegrass Poll, 43 percent of registered voters in north-central Kentucky had a favorable opinion of Grimes, compared to 34 percent unfavorable. In the latest poll, those numbers flipped, with Grimes now viewed favorably by 37 percent and unfavorably by 45 percent.
It is difficult to say with any certainty what accounts for the shift away from Grimes, though the latest poll was conducted after the Democrat had been roundly mocked by national media organizations for her refusal to say whether or not she voted for President Barack Obama during newspaper interviews and during the only televised debate of the campaign.
The president continues to be a drag on Democrats, with just a 30 percent favorable rating and 54 percent unfavorable. In Eastern Kentucky, a region both campaigns have made a priority, Obama garners only a 19 percent favorable rating.
Additionally, as the Herald-Leader reported last week, a number of liberal Democrats were incensed by the Grimes campaign's decision to air an immigration ad, deemed offensive by many on the left, in which a narrator uses the term "illegal aliens" and Grimes said she approved the message "because I've never supported amnesty or benefits for illegal immigrants and I never will."
Voss acknowledged that it is "tempting to try to come up with explanations for why McConnell regained ground."
"We might point to Grimes' weak debate performance or the couple of controversies surrounding her recently, such as the refusal to say whether she voted for Obama or the puzzle of whether the national Democratic Party was abandoning her," Voss said. "But it's more likely that none of those events really made much difference, and the reason this poll differs from the last one is merely random variation."
Meanwhile, McConnell's favorable rating reached its highest point of the year in the latest poll, although he remained underwater by a nine-point margin. Thirty-eight percent of registered voters have a favorable impression of McConnell and 47 percent unfavorable.
The poll also showed men and women giving almost equal support to the two candidates, a sharp reversal from earlier in the year when McConnell enjoyed a substantial lead among men and Grimes won handily among women.
In the latest poll, McConnell and Grimes were tied at 43 percent among men. McConnell led among women 44 percent to 43 percent despite Grimes' effort to highlight votes McConnell has taken to block action on the Paycheck Fairness Act.
When asked if they were open to changing their vote, 9 percent of McConnell's supporters and 11 percent of Grimes' said they were.
By a margin of 47 percent to 42 percent, Kentuckians say they would prefer Republicans take over the U.S. Senate.
Follow-up interviews with several poll respondents suggests that the candidates' talking points appear to be making their way into the collective minds of voters.
"It's time for a change. Thirty years is long enough," said Larry Pendergraff, a retired coal miner in Hopkins County who is backing Grimes.
"You can certainly say my mind is made up," said Pendergraff. "Mitch McConnell has been in there too long and has accomplished too little."
Jeanne Boyd of Boone County, who is retired from work in a nursery, said she is voting for McConnell "because I can't stand Obama and Grimes is for Obama.
"I don't want no part of anybody who is for him," Boyd said. "She's with him. Then I'm not with her. He's awful."
April O'Brien, a Bullitt County homemaker, said she will go with McConnell because of his power and experience.
"He's already done a lot for Kentucky and just think how much more he could do as leader of the Senate," she said.
Wilma Allen, 80, of Breckinridge County, said there are lots of reasons why she and her three children will vote for Grimes.
"Mitch has been in there too long, 30 years is too long," Allen said. "I'm also for helping poor people by raising the minimum wage. She's for that and he, a multimillionaire, is against that."