U.S. Sen. Rand Paul has hinged his fledgling presidential campaign on polls showing him ahead of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in some swing states, but the latest Bluegrass Poll suggests Paul might have a hard time beating Clinton in his own backyard.
The Bluegrass Poll, conducted by SurveyUSA from May 5 to 10 and sponsored by the Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV in Lexington and the Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville, found that Clinton and Paul are tied in Kentucky with 45 percent each. Eleven percent of the 2,104 registered voters surveyed were un decided.
The question has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.
One year ago, before either Paul or Clinton officially entered the 2016 presidential race, a Bluegrass Poll showed Kentucky voters narrowly preferred Paul 48 percent to 44 percent.
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Clinton, along with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, made repeated visits to the commonwealth last year to campaign for then-U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes. After Grimes was soundly defeated by incumbent Republican Mitch McConnell by almost 16 percentage points, the Clintons' popularity in the state was questioned by GOP strategists.
But the Clinton campaign has indicated early on that it plans to compete in Kentucky, which hasn't been in play since Bill Clinton won the state both times he ran in the 1990s. Campaign officials for Hillary Clinton told the Herald-Leader recently that it already has hired a grass-roots organizer in Kentucky.
Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, cautioned against reading too much into the poll, taken 78 weeks before Election Day 2016.
"Kentucky is so conservative that the candidate preferences among voters in this state should not make much difference for the general election," Voss said.
"If the Republican's in danger of losing Kentucky then the Republican is doomed anyhow," Voss said. "Basically, the split down the middle between them looks a lot like McConnell and Grimes looked far in advance, but we know how that turned out: The Kentuckians who regularly vote Republican but who do not think of themselves as Republicans eventually snapped back to their usual voting behavior in national elections."
Overall, the latest poll showed mixed results for Paul just more than a month after he began running for the White House in earnest.
If Kentucky held its Republican presidential preference contest today, Paul would win easily, the poll found.
In a survey of 517 likely Republican primary voters, 26 percent said they would vote for Paul to be the Republican nominee. That question has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who came in second in Kentucky when he ran for president in 2008 before moving on to hosting duties on Fox News, came in second again with 15 percent.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush came in third with 12 percent, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had 10 percent, undecided got 8 percent, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson got 7 percent, and U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio each got 6 percent.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, 2012 candidate and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santor um, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, 2012 candidate and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and "other" all got 2 percent. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina came in at 1 percent.
Among Kentucky Republicans who described themselves as "very conservative," Paul and Huckabee were tied at 17 percent.
Paul has made attracting young voters a centerpiece of his campaign, and the new polling suggests he is having some success with young Republicans even as older Republicans continue to view him skeptically.
Among Republican primary voters ages 18 to 34, Paul ran away from the field with 41 percent, but he lost voters 65 and older to Bush, who placed first with that demographic at 17 percent.
Targeting the youth vote in a general election, however, would be a much steeper climb for Paul.
Against Clinton, Paul gets walloped among the 18-to-34 crowd, losing to Clinton 50 percent to 34 percent. But he did better with seniors than Clinton, winning the 65 and older group 50 percent to 44 percent.
Poll respondent Jim Smith, of London said Paul's calls for a more restrained foreign policy and his blunt approach have qualified him to be president.
"I like what he believes in," said Smith, a Republican. "He says what I think. I think he thinks we should be more in tune to national concerns rather than internationally."
But poll respondent Karen Swope of Fort Thomas said she wouldn't vote for Paul because she thinks he is "an idiot."
"He is a Kentucky senator, but he became a senator for one reason: to become president," said Swope, who described herself in the poll as liberal. "And ever since he's been a senator he's been campaigning to be president. When has he ever really been a senator?"
Just more than half of Republican voters — 52 percent — said they agreed with Paul's decision to run for president and re-election to his Senate seat at the same time, while 25 percent said he should run for re-election only, 11 percent said he should run for president only, 8 percent said he shouldn't run for either, and 5 percent said they weren't sure.
That's up dramatically from a Bluegrass Poll taken last February, when just 23 percent of Republicans said Paul should run for both offices at once.
But Republicans are far from sold on Paul's efforts to change the state party's nominating contest from a traditional primary to a caucus, a move that allows him to circumvent a state law prohibiting candidates from appearing on the same ballot twice.
Fifty-three percent of Kentucky Republicans said they preferred to hold a traditional primary, compared to 34 percent who said they were in favor of moving to a caucus and 13 percent who said they weren't sure.
Paul gets the most support for running for both offices — 62 percent — from voters ages 18 to 34. Only 48 percent of those 65 or older agreed with Paul's decision.
Voss said "past polls suggested broad opposition to Paul running for both president and U.S. Senate, and had the resentment persisted after Paul announced, it could have spelled trouble in his re-election bid."
"But now if there were any doubt, it's pretty much gone," Voss said. "Kentuckians seem a lot more comfortable with Rand Paul seeking two offices now than they did back when his plans were still up in the air.
"If running for two offices is going to be a public-relations problem for Paul, then his Senate opponent will need to figure out a way to turn it into one."
Poll respondent Bobby Rowe of Isonville said he supported Paul's decision because he wanted Paul to be president. But if that doesn't work out, Rowe wants Paul back in his Senate seat.
"I like Rand Paul; he's good for the country," Rowe said. "I'd like to see him as president, but if I can't see him as president I'd sure not like to lose him as senator."
But poll respondent Jeanne Houchins of Smith's Grove said Paul should run for Senate or president "but not both."
"He has one office; he should have to give up one if he wants to try for another," Houchins said. "He hasn't been in office that long; it's not like he's a 30-year veteran or something."