That Iowa poll showing Joni Ernst trailing is worrisome

11 mins read

There’s not a lot to say about this apart from the obvious, which is that it wouldn’t be happening unless the national electoral climate suddenly looked bad for the GOP. There’s no reason specific to Ernst to explain why she’d be trailing a little-known Democratic challenger. She’s an incumbent; she’s likable; she won easily in 2014; Trump won her state easily in 2016. There’s no baggage or scandal that would account for voters turning on her. She hasn’t been on the wrong side of some key issue that might alienate independents.

If Iowa’s trending blue it’s because the whole map is trending blue, at least for the moment.

The respected Selzer poll has Democrat Theresa Greenfield leading 46/43. That’s within the margin of error, but Iowa’s not supposed to be a coin flip.

The senator’s job approval rating among all Iowans began to drop earlier this year, according to Register polling, falling to 47% in March from 57% a year before. This poll shows that rating has changed little, now at 49%. Another 39% say they disapprove of the job she is doing, and 13% are unsure…

Forty-five percent of Iowans have a favorable view of Ernst, and 40% say they have an unfavorable view. Those numbers have dipped during the past year. In February 2019, 56% said they had a favorable view of Ernst and 29% had an unfavorable view…

Women choose Greenfield by 20 percentage points, 54% to 34%. White women without a college degree choose Greenfield by an even larger margin: 60% to 29%…

While Ernst leads 47% to 41% among those ages 35 to 54, Greenfield leads with those younger than 35 (46% to 40%) and those 65 and older (50% to 42%).

Ernst’s approval and favorable ratings are down from last year, but she’s still above water in both metrics. And Greenfield remains largely unknown, with 39 percent of Iowans saying they don’t know enough about her yet to form an opinion. If Iowans aren’t voting “for” Greenfield and they’re not really voting “against” Ernst, we’re left to wonder if this is largely a Trump thing. The fact that Greenfield leads by eight among senior citizens is further evidence: Ernst won that demographic by 18 points in 2014 but Trump has trailed Biden within the group consistently in recent polling nationally, and now here’s the same thing happening in Iowa.

If America’s retirees have shifted blue across the map, whether because of the double whammy of the pandemic and the economic fall-off or just general Trump fatigue, the GOP’s in trouble. Suddenly not just the White House would be in play but the Senate majority, as Dems have decent pick-up opportunities in Maine, Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina, and Montana. Putting Iowa and the two Georgia seats on the ballot this fall in play would give them even more opportunities in case some of the others fall through. The Selzer poll suggests that Greenfield’s made a race of it.

All’s not lost, though. Josh Kraushaar reports that Susan Collins has bounced back a bit from a hit her polling took in Maine earlier this year. At last check she was leading again — barely:

In polling conducted by the pro-Collins 1820 PAC, the fourth-term senator trailed Democratic opponent Sara Gideon by 10 points at the end of the impeachment trial—a significant deficit for a senator who rarely saw her approval dip underwater before this campaign.

But in a sign that public opinion is still volatile in Maine, Collins was able to close her polling deficit by late April, aided by positive advertising about her work helping Mainers in the midst of the pandemic, particularly her coauthorship of the successful Paycheck Protection Program. An internal survey taken for 1820 PAC by the Tarrance Group in late April, obtained by National Journal, found Collins reemerging with a narrow lead over Gideon, 48 to 47 percent. The poll found her favorability rating had increased 7 points from January to April, and stood at 53 percent.

That’s encouraging but I wonder if it’s outdated. Trump’s polling in late April was several points better than it is now. If there really is a “Trump effect” weighing on Republican senators then we might expect Collins to have slipped a bit again lately. (She trailed challenger Sara Gideon by four points in the last public poll taken of the state, but that was in March, pre-pandemic, a lifetime ago.) Another clue that there’s a “Trump effect” is that the president has started to disappear from ads run by Republican incumbents. According to the Daily Beast, among 15 spots created by GOP Senate campaigns in battleground states since March, Trump was mentioned in just one of them. Democrats Tim Kaine and Joe Manchin turned up in some of Collins’s ads to signal her bipartisanship and independence, but POTUS did not.

Here’s what those campaigns are looking at, no doubt:

There was another poll out yesterday showing Biden within two points in Arkansas, but we don’t need to say anything about that. The methodology has been questioned, and in any case, if it’s even close to being accurate then the election is already over. Relatedly, the Beast is also reporting that some of Trump’s aides have taken to trying to shield him from discouraging polling because it “helps keep the president from flying into a rage as much as he otherwise would.” But not all feel that way. Some of them are leveling with him in the belief that only if he knows how great the risk is might he be convinced to do something differently. Problem is, it’s hard to convince a narcissist that he’s not popular:

“I have told the president that the numbers are real and that I believe he can and will win, but that right now it looks bad,” said a Republican who recently spoke to Trump. “He said, ‘Come on, don’t you know that’s all fake?’ But in a lot of these internal numbers [that I’ve seen], we’re way down right now.”

“Something needs to change,” the Trump ally added.

This person wasn’t the only one sounding the alarm over the past month. Two other sources who’ve spoken to the president lately—one of whom is a senior administration official—said that when the topic of polls came up they advised Trump that the surveys on swing states and key demographics seemed bleak. Both said they were concerned the president wasn’t taking them as seriously as they had wished.

Politico has an entertaining story today quoting various Republican officials outside the Beltway who are not only confident that Trump will win but, in some cases, that he’ll win in a landslide. There was never realistically a “Trump landslide” scenario in 2020, though. Even before the pandemic, with the economy roaring, he had trouble getting north of 45 percent approval. Certainly there were (and are) scenarios where he wins reelection; there were (but probably no longer are) even scenarios where he wins the popular vote. The realistic best-case scenario now, though, is that he squeaks through to another electoral college win while losing the popular vote and probably losing a couple of states that he won in 2016. That’ll be some complexion for his second term — an even more evenly and bitterly divided America, with the president no longer beholden to voter opinion in any way.

Here’s the latest ad from the Never Trump outfit The Lincoln Project, which has moved from targeting Trump to targeting pro-Trump GOP Senate incumbents like Ernst. It’s true that Ernst has utterly failed to keep her promise to make big spenders on the Hill “squeal” but that’s a party-wide failing. And in her semi-defense, senators really no longer set policy in any meaningful way. Even if Ernst wanted to push spending cuts, it’s McConnell and the leadership that decides what comes to the floor and what legislation looks like, just as Pelosi and her team decide it in the House.

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