What to take (and leave) from recent Senate race polling

A peek into Iowa, New Hampshire and North Carolina

Sen. Charles E. Grassley has not said whether he will run for another term next year, but Iowa voters might be looking for someone new. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Charles E. Grassley has not said whether he will run for another term next year, but Iowa voters might be looking for someone new. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 23, 2021 at 6:00am

ANALYSIS — Joe Biden’s closer-than-expected presidential victory in 2020 might have been the last straw for people looking for a reason to ignore polling in future elections. But don’t put me in that camp. While polling has its flaws, I’d rather look at imperfect quantitative data than try to forecast elections based on a collection of anecdotes. 

Of course, it’s wise not to jump to conclusions or projections based on any single poll, but a few recent surveys in key Senate races offer some guidance and context for key contests that will decide control of the chamber next fall. 

And considering Republicans need a net gain of just one seat to retake the Senate, literally every seat matters in the 2022 fight for the majority. 

Iowa 

One of the big lessons from the 2020 election was to never doubt J. Ann Selzer’s numbers. Her preelection Iowa poll for The Des Moines Register shook up the race when it showed President Donald Trump leading Biden by 7 points, when the Hawkeye State contest had been regarded as an even race. Trump ended up winning Iowa by 8 points.

That accuracy isn’t great news for Charles E. Grassley, who is up for reelection next year. According to a new Selzer poll, conducted June 13-16, just 27 percent of likely voters said they would vote to reelect the longtime Republican senator while 64 percent said it was “time for someone else to hold office.” 

This has never been my favorite poll question because ultimately elections come down to a choice between two candidates, and two parties, with control of a chamber hanging in the balance. So it’s hard to tell how many Iowans are indeed ready to vote for a Democrat. And unfortunately, Seltzer didn’t ask this question previously, so we don’t know how the senator’s current standing compares to previous cycles. 

Other numbers in the recent poll weren’t spectacular either for Grassley. The seven-term senator’s job approval rating was 45 percent, with 39 percent disapproving (the worst since the beginning of his Senate career in the early ’80s). Fifty percent of respondents viewed him favorably compared to 37 percent unfavorably.

But one of the other big lessons from 2020 is that partisanship matters. Just one state (Maine) voted for one party for president and the other party for the Senate. There won’t be a presidential race atop the ballot next year, but past performance should not be ignored. Just six senators currently represent states their party lost in the 2020 presidential election.

That’s good news for Grassley, or the GOP nominee if the senator chooses not to seek reelection, considering Trump’s victory over Biden in Iowa. Democrats will likely need a top-tier candidate to overcome the partisan lean of the state and potentially the overall trend of the midterm cycle. So far, they have farmer/former Crawford County Supervisor Dave Muhlbauer in the race, although former Rep. Abby Finkenauer is considering a bid as well. 

The Selzer poll should be taken seriously, but until Democrats can field a top contender and there are signs that the national political environment is at least neutral or even favorable to the Democratic Party, Grassley doesn’t have to worry. 

North Carolina 

It’s rare for a candidate to release a polling memo that shows that candidate less known, less popular and losing to an opponent on the initial ballot test. But that’s what Rep. Ted Budd did in the race to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Richard M. Burr in North Carolina. 

Budd’s pollster, Rob Autry of Meeting Street Insights, deserves credit for the memo that doesn’t hide the current realities of the congressman’s bid for the GOP nomination. With 19 percent support in the June 9-10 survey, Budd trailed former Gov. Pat McCrory (45 percent) and was just a few points ahead of former Rep. Mark Walker (12 percent). 

The point of the release was to show that Budd gains significant ground when voters find out that Trump has endorsed him in the race. It remains to be seen if Budd will have the resources to let voters know about the endorsement, but his campaign laid out the path to victory.

Typically, a pollster or campaign will characterize the results of unfavorable polling questions in vague terms, or leave them out altogether, forcing reporters to follow up with questions about the specific numbers. But Autry and the Budd campaign chose not to do that. When pollsters and campaigns are upfront when polling or news is not favorable, they gain credibility for when the numbers or news is more positive.  

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New Hampshire 

A recent poll in New Hampshire laid out the initial contours for what could be the marquee Senate race of the cycle. 

Forty-three percent of registered voters in the Granite State approved of the job Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan is doing, compared to 49 percent who disapproved, according to a June 9-11 survey by the Saint Anselm College Survey Center. That’s a stark contrast from GOP Gov. Chris Sununu’s job rating (68 percent approve/30 percent disapprove) in the same poll. 

Voters didn’t make much of a distinction between the job their elected officials were doing and how they liked them personally. Hassan was at 45 percent favorable/49 percent unfavorable compared to Sununu’s 67 percent favorable/31 percent unfavorable rating.

Voters were also more optimistic about the state of the state than the state of the country, which could help Sununu if he runs. Forty-two percent of respondents said the state was headed in the right direction while just 30 percent said the same was true for country. And 59 percent said the country was off on the wrong track compared to 37 percent who felt that way about the state. 

This was an online survey of registered voters, which is still not widely accepted as interchangeable in quality with a traditional, live-caller survey. But with the consistent challenge of low response rates to phone polls, online surveys are likely to become a greater part of the polling conversation. 

First of all, it’s unclear whether Sununu will run, and the governor is in no hurry to announce a decision. “I won’t make a decision for a really long time,” Sununu told local radio host Jack Heath on the morning news/talk program “Good Morning New Hampshire” earlier this month. “I’m really going to enjoy having a summer and fall … of just being a governor.”

The Saint Anselm results also don’t tell us whether Sununu can maintain those lofty job approval ratings in a race for federal office, when control of the Senate will be on the line. Other past and current governors have struggled to make the jump recently, but they often had to overcome more partisanship in their state.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.