Despite a summer of social change and subsequent conservative backlash, Attorney General Jack Conway holds a slim advantage over Republican Matt Bevin in this year's race for Kentucky governor, according to a new Bluegrass Poll.
Conway, the Democratic nominee, leads Bevin 45 percent to 42 percent, with 13 percent of voters undecided.
The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points, which means the two candidates are locked in a toss-up race with large numbers of voters up for grabs just before Saturday's Fancy Farm picnic, the annual event in Western Kentucky that serves as the unofficial kick-off for the fall campaigns.
The survey of 685 likely voters was conducted July 22-28 by SurveyUSA on behalf of the Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV in Lexington and The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville. Seventy-two percent of respondents were surveyed on their home telephone and 28 percent were shown a questionnaire on their smartphone, tablet or other electronic device.
When potential independent candidate Drew Curtis, the founder of alternative news website Fark.com, is added to the mix, he takes support from both candidates. Curtis polled at 8 percent, leaving Conway with 43 percent and Bevin with 38 percent.
Bevin, a party outsider who ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in last year's GOP Senate primary, has picked up support among Republicans since winning the gubernatorial primary in May, when he trailed Conway 37 percent to 48 percent, but there are signs that he continues to have problems uniting his party.
Among registered Republicans, 15 percent said they plan to vote for Conway. More than 1 in 4 of those who consider themselves "conservative" said they plan to vote for Conway, as did 15 percent of those who described themselves as "very conservative."
Likewise, a substantial number of Democrats — 20 percent — support Bevin over Conway, though that number is less surprising given that many conservative Kentucky Democrats routinely vote for Republican candidates.
Follow-up phone calls to several poll respondents revealed that many don't know much about either of the two major-party candidates.
Jim Chappell, 64, of Louisville, said he would vote for Conway because Conway is not a Republican.
"I think Republicans have a disgusting philosophy," Chappell said. "If Donald Duck was running against them, I would vote for Donald Duck."
Jessica Whitedove, 67, of Perry County, said Conway is the lesser of two evils, but there are no good options in the governor's race.
"We don't have much to choose from. We really don't, and that is sad, but you've got to pick somebody," Whitedove said. "We cannot let the Republicans rule. I'm going to watch another debate, then I'll make my final decision, I guess."
Jim Weaks, 50, of Louisville, said he'll likely vote for Bevin because Conway does not follow through on his promises.
"Jack Conway is a guy that stands and says all kinds of stuff, but he doesn't do anything," Weaks said. "He's a good talker, he's a good spokesman, but I don't believe anything that comes out of his mouth."
Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said the poll results show a race still in flux with nearly 100 days to go until the election, but he would be surprised if Bevin continues to struggle with Republican voters down the stretch.
"What we're seeing in the early gubernatorial polls is similar to what we've seen in other Kentucky elections: Voters divide their initial support fairly evenly between the Democrat and the Republican, because a lot of Kentucky conservatives do not identify with the GOP," Voss said. "However, on most policy issues those voters lean pretty far to the right, so as campaign issues crystallize they tend to snap back to the Republican column."
While both Conway and Bevin call Louisville home, the 3rd Congressional District is Conway's biggest base of support. The attorney general has a 30-point lead in Louisville.
Bevin's stronghold is in Western Kentucky, where he leads Conway by 19 points in the 1st Congressional District and 13 points in the 2nd Congressional District.
The poll shows Bevin underperforming in Northern Kentucky's 4th Congressional District, a hotbed of Tea Party activists that helped push the candidate over the top during the primary. Bevin leads by only 2 points in that region.
Voss said he also would be surprised if that pattern holds through November.
"Both Conway's support and the support of left-leaning populist Drew Curtis seem to be coming too heavily from conservative voters to expect that current patterns will remain stable," Voss said.
Conway edges out Bevin in Eastern Kentucky 44 percent to 41 percent, suggesting neither candidate will pull back from their efforts to portray themselves as friends of coal in the coming months.
"Conway's lead in Eastern Kentucky does not look much like what we've seen in past Kentucky polling," Voss said, when Republicans have carried the region by tying Democratic candidates to President Barack Obama, who is blamed by many for job losses in the region's coal industry.
As Conway tries to distance himself from Obama, he'll continue embracing term-limited Gov. Steve Beshear. The Democratic governor's approval rating remains positive, with 51 percent approving of his job performance (including 23 percent of Bevin voters) and only 33 percent disapproving. Sixteen percent said they were not sure.
Beshear earned good marks from 32 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of Democrats.
Bevin and Conway are tied among men at 44 percent, but Conway has more support among women, leading Bevin 46 percent to 39 percent.
Conway polled best among young and older voters, winning the 18-34 age group 42 percent to 36 percent and leading among voters 65 and older 50 percent to 43 percent.
Respondents between the ages of 35 and 49 narrowly prefer Conway — 44 percent to 40 percent — while voters between the ages of 50 and 64 slightly prefer Bevin — 47 percent to 45 percent.
On two of the issues that have dominated the campaign so far — the budget and the state's public pension crisis — Conway and Bevin are essentially tied.
When 863 registered voters were asked who they think is better qualified to solve problems with Kentucky's state worker pension systems, Conway narrowly edged out Bevin — 37 percent to 36 percent — despite the latter's claims to be an expert on the matter. Twenty-seven percent said they were not sure.
When asked which candidate is better qualified to manage the state's budget, both candidates polled at 38 percent. Twenty-four percent said they were not sure.