Attorney General Jack Conway maintains a nominal five-point lead over Republican Matt Bevin with just more than a month to go in Kentucky's race for governor, according to a new Bluegrass Poll.
The poll shows little change from July, with Conway garnering 42 percent support, Bevin with 37 percent and independent Drew Curtis with 7 percent. Fifteen percent of voters say they are undecided.
The survey of 701 likely voters was conducted Sept. 22 to 27 by SurveyUSA and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points, which means the race remains a statistical toss-up. The poll is sponsored by the Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV in Lexington and The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville,
Despite a televised debate and increasing numbers of advertisements, there has been no shift since summer in a race that has largely failed to engage voters.
When the Bluegrass Poll was conducted in late July, Conway led Bevin 43 percent to 38 percent, with Curtis at 8 percent.
Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said the latest poll results mean Bevin's campaign "should be worried."
"Bevin is having more difficulty exciting the state's Republicans than Conway faces with Democrats," Voss said. "Democratic partisans apparently feel more favorably toward Conway than Republican partisans feel toward Bevin. Bevin needs to worry about the folks who lean his way deciding to stay home because they're insufficiently motivated."
Only 65 percent of respondents who identified themselves as "very conservative" and 56 percent of those who said they were "conservative" support Bevin, according to the poll.
But Voss also said that "the bad news for Conway is that these voters have a habit of shifting toward the GOP late in an election cycle."
"Poll results tell us where the voters are now, not where they'll be in several weeks," Voss said.
The poll's details might spell trouble for Bevin or Conway, but they suggest especially bad news for Curtis, who might now fail to qualify for upcoming debates that have a 10 percent polling threshold for participation.
Overall, the political environment appears to be a mixed bag for Democrats, as President Barack Obama continues to suffer from anemic approval ratings in the state while Gov. Steve Beshear remains popular.
Half of respondents say they approve of the job Beshear is doing, compared with 32 percent who disapprove and 18 percent who say they aren't sure. But less than a third of respondents — 31 percent — approve of the job the president is doing, with 61 percent disapproving and 8 percent unsure.
The election, Voss said, "is going to come down to the same set of Kentucky swing voters who have been deciding all of our recent elections: the folks who disapprove of President Obama but do not disapprove of Governor Beshear."
"More than a quarter of Conway's support comes from Kentuckians who disapprove of President Obama," Voss said. "Bevin needs to do better than that."
Voters are less clear about their feelings toward the men running for governor.
Conway, who ran statewide in 2010 against Rand Paul in the U.S. Senate race, is viewed favorably by 37 percent of respondents, compared to 33 percent who hold an unfavorable view. Twenty-two percent say they are neutral, and 8 percent have no opinion of the attorney general.
Bevin, who has been targeted throughout the summer for making repeated misstatements and taking contradictory policy positions, also is narrowly above water, viewed favorably by 35 percent of respondents and unfavorably by 33 percent. Twenty-four percent say they are neutral, and 8 percent have no opinion of the Louisville businessman.
Curtis, who turned some heads at a debate sponsored by the Bluegrass Poll partners but doesn't have money to run advertising, is largely unknown by voters. Eighteen percent of respondents have a favorable view of the Fark.com creator, and 9 percent have an unfavorable view. But almost half — 49 percent — say they are neutral, and 24 percent have no opinion of the independent candidate.
Conway is narrowly viewed as the most honest of the three candidates.
Thirty percent say Conway is the most honest, compared with 27 percent for Bevin and 13 percent for Curtis.
Conway also is trusted more to deal with new federal environmental rules that limit carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. One-third of respondents trust the Democrat more on the issue, 29 percent pick Bevin and 7 percent choose Curtis. Nearly a third of respondents — 31 percent — say they aren't sure.
Voters also appear to be in line with the Democratic candidate on two other issues that Conway has made central to his campaign strategy — funding for early childhood education and whether Bevin should release his tax returns.
Bevin said during a Republican primary debate that studies show early childhood education "serves no purpose" after age 9. Conway seized on the statement and has since accused Bevin of flip-flopping after Bevin said the notion that he doesn't support early childhood education is "absolute bunk."
Forty percent of poll respondents say the state should spend more money on public preschool programs, and only 13 percent say less money should be spent. Twenty-one percent say Kentucky is "spending about the right amount," and 26 percent say they don't know enough about the issue to make a decision.
Conway also has tried to pressure Bevin to release his tax returns, which can reveal potential conflicts of interest, but Bevin has refused, saying he will release them only after he is elected.
By a wide margin, Kentucky voters disagree with Bevin. Two-thirds — 67 percent — say the Republican candidate should release his tax returns before the election, 15 percent say he should wait to release them after, and 18 percent say they are not sure.