We in the media, myself included, tend to cover elections through the frame of the candidate, i.e. “Will Joe Biden win?” “Can President Trump appeal to people in the suburbs,” “Does Amy McGrath have the right message for Eastern Kentucky?” But that in some ways distorts how elections actually work. The real actors in the election, the deciders, are the voters, not the candidates. The real questions are, “Will voters in the suburbs reject Trump?” “Will voters in Kentucky’s rural areas reelect Mitch McConnell again?” “How did voters respond to McGrath’s strong debate performance?”
The reason we all obsess about candidates is that it’s a lot easier to analyze the actions of two people (McGrath and McConnell) than 2 million people (the likely number of voters in the McGrath-McConnell race). That’s why polls are so important. Polls often can’t give us accurate answers on questions where the margins are very narrow (Will Clinton or Trump win Pennsylvania?), but they answer other questions quite clearly (Will Clinton or Trump win Kentucky?). They are probably our best way of assessing opinions of a large group of people.
And they are an even better tool if used in the right way. In my view, the most important use of polls in the political context is not necessarily to predict elections (the event will happen, and we will know the result) but to understand public opinion outside of the one day every two years most of us vote. For example, the polls are a bit unclear on whether Biden or Trump will win the presidential election. But the polls are very clear that the overwhelming majority of Republicans will back Trump. You might say, well duh! But I doubt five years ago you would have imagined that a candidate who had tried to coerce a foreign government into investigating his political rival, wavered when asked to condemn white supremacists and mishandled a virus outbreak so badly that more than 200,000 people died would have had any chance of winning a presidential election in America. The almost universal support of Trump among GOP voters is very important, and the kind of thing that we would only know by doing constant polling.
With all that said, here is what public opinion looks like in Kentucky right now. There isn’t a ton of polling of Kentucky overall, and almost none of say, just Louisville or Bowling Green. But there is some data, and it’s fairly interesting.
Kentucky voters like Biden more than Clinton and like Trump a bit less than four years ago. But they like Trump a lot more than Biden.
About 57% of Kentucky voters approved of President Trump in January 2017, compared to 34% who disapproved, according to data from Civiqs, a nonpartisan firm where I got much of the data for this story from. Now, 58% approve, 39% disapprove, according to Civiqs. Trump is much more unpopular outside of Kentucky — just 42% of voters across the country approve of him, 55% disapprove.
Only 32% of Kentuckians have a favorable view of Joe Biden, compared to 63% who have an unfavorable view, according to Civiqs. Biden is more popular nationally — 44% favorable, 51% unfavorable.
In 2016, Trump won Kentucky over Hillary Clinton 63% to 33%. Biden is likely to do significantly better, at least based on recent polls:
Trump 57%, Biden 42%, SurveyMonkey
Trump 56%, Biden 38%, Data for Progress
Trump 58%, Biden 38%, Quinnipiac University
So, Biden seems likely to lose around 60% to 40% in Kentucky. Losing by 20 points is a significant improvement from 30, but Kentucky seems quite red at the presidential level for now.
But Kentucky voters aren’t too jazzed about America under Trump.
Forty-eight percent of Kentucky voters think that things in the country are headed in the wrong direction, compared to 45% who think they are headed in the right direction, per Civiqs. So, Kentuckians don’t love America under Trump. But across the country, voters are more pessimistic — 62% think the country is headed in the wrong direction, compared to 32% who say right direction.
McConnell is hated nationally but not here
McConnell is way more unpopular than Trump or Biden across the country. Just 29% of Americans have a favorable view of him, compared to 58% with an unfavorable view, according to Civiqs. Nationally, 67% of Republicans view him favorably, 14% unfavorably, 19% are not sure. Those are fairly low numbers among Republicans, considering how effective McConnell has been in executing Republican policy goals.
In Kentucky, 47% of voters approve of McConnell, 44% disapprove. Those aren’t great numbers, but they are probably good enough for him to win reelection.
It’s worth noting that part of McConnell’s unpopularity across the country is related to the job of being a top congressional leader. Americans don’t like Congress or the partisan divide in Washington, and congressional leaders exemplify both. And there is not a huge party apparatus promoting congressional leaders nationally in the way that the two parties are promoting Biden and Trump. So, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is also unpopular nationally (54% unfavorable, 38% favorable, per Civiqs) and really unpopular in Kentucky (71% unfavorable, 23% favorable.)
Kentuckians are happy with Gov. Andy Beshear’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak
Ten percent of Kentuckians are “completely satisfied” with the state and local government response to the virus outbreak, 47% are “mostly satisfied,” 24% are “not very satisfied” and 18% are “not satisfied at all,” according to Civiqs. So 57% satisfied, 40% not satisfied. That’s fairly similar to how Americans across the country feel about their local and state governments’ responses (53% satisfied, 45% unsatisfied.)
Fifty-four percent of Kentuckians are satisfied with the federal government’s response to the virus outbreak, compared to 44% who are unsatisfied. Voters across the country (58% unsatisfied, 40% satisfied) are less enthusiastic about the federal response to COVID-19 than those in Kentucky.
The names Beshear and Trump were not specifically invoked in these questions. But this polling suggests that Kentuckians think Beshear has done as good or better a job dealing with COVID-19 as Trump. Considering how GOP-leaning the state is, it’s likely that at least some Kentucky Republican voters are putting their partisan leanings aside and acknowledging the obvious (Beshear has handled the virus outbreak better than Trump). These numbers in some ways contradict the story being told by Kentucky Republican officials — that the state is full of people angry about how Beshear has handled the virus outbreak and therefore the legislature must roll back Beshear’s emergency powers in 2021. The legislature can certainly take away his powers, but there is little evidence that is a demand from the public.
In polling conducted in August, 58% of Kentuckians said they approved of how Beshear had handled the virus outbreak, according to the COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States.
Kentuckians want to build the wall, legalize pot, enact a new economic stimulus bill and something like the Green New Deal, provide extra money to people unemployed due to COVID-19 and rethink mandatory minimum jail sentences.
American voters often have a mix of views that don’t line up cleanly with either party. Kentuckians are the same way. Building a wall along the entire U.S-Mexico border, a position favored by Trump but opposed by Democrats, is supported by 60% of Kentuckians and opposed by just 35%, per Civiqs. (Nationally, 44% of Americans support this idea while 52% oppose it.)
At the same time, 63% of Kentuckians favor making marijuana legal, compared to just 23% who oppose that idea, similar to the national numbers (68/21.)
Polling from the left-leaning firm Data for Progress found that Kentuckians favor by a 57-32 margin having increased benefits for unemployed people as long as the jobless rate is elevated in the wake of the COVID-19 break, favor by a 77-9 margin a $2 trillion jobs program to help the nation recover from COVID-19, and favor by a 49-29 margin “federal investments to achieve a carbon pollution-free electricity sector by 2035.”
Sixty-four percent of Kentuckians would support allowing a judge not to impose a mandatory minimum sentence if the judge felt the sentence was too harsh, according to a poll conducted in June by YouGov Blue, a liberal-leaning polling firm. Just 24% of Kentuckians opposed this idea.
Louisville residents are unhappy with Mayor Greg Fischer, but divided on whether or not he should resign.
Thirty-four percent of Louisville residents approve of Mayor Fischer’s performance, compared to 52% who disapprove, according to a poll conducted in early October by Kentucky Politics Weekly podcast. Just 28% rated Fischer as doing an excellent or good job in terms of “law and order and managing the Louisville Metro Police Department,” compared to 50% who said that he was doing a poor job on that front. Similarly, 47% of residents said Fischer was doing poorly in terms of dealing with “race relations and social justice,” compared to 27% who said good or excellent. Forty-three percent said Fischer should finish his term (which ends in 2022), 46% said he should step down, the remaining bloc was not sure.
This was a poll with a fairly small sample size and not an entity I had seen do previous polls about Louisville, so I am reluctant to draw too much from it. But the Kentucky Politics Weekly podcast and this poll are initiatives of Tres Watson, who was once the communications director of the Kentucky Republican Party. If 80% of Louisvillians wanted Fischer to resign, I am guessing Watson would have been happy to advertise that. So, this data suggests Fischer is unpopular but also that the city is not clamoring for him to step down.
If Amy McGrath won (or John Yarmuth lost), it would be a huge, huge upset. Watch for Democrat Josh Hicks in the Lexington-area U.S. House seat.
The latest polls on the McGrath-McConnell race differ on how big the senator’s lead is (12, 15 or 7), but all agree McConnell is a big favorite. So FiveThirtyEight says McConnell has a 96 in 100 chance of winning; The Economist says McConnell has a 97% chance. Yarmuth’s chances are rated as more than 99 in 100.
Josh Hicks is the Democrat running for the U.S. House seat that McGrath ran for unsuccessfully in 2018 against incumbent Republican Andy Barr. (Barr won 51-48.) FiveThirtyEight says Hicks has just a 15 in 100 chance. I don’t expect Hicks to win. But if Biden ends up winning the election nationally by 11 percentage points, his current lead in polls, Biden might have enough coattails to sweep into office someone like Hicks, who is running in an urban area that has the kinds of voters who might have backed Republicans before but are unhappy with Trump and ready to cast out GOP lawmakers like Barr who have largely aligned with the president
Perry Bacon Jr. is a national political writer based in Louisville. He can be reached at [email protected]