Polling in Perilous Territory

by Nathan L. Gonzales April 28, 2009 · 12:05 AM EDT

Are Sens. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) or Richard Burr (R-N.C.) this cycle’s Rick Santorum?

The former Pennsylvania Senator began his 2006 re-election race down in the polls and never recovered. And while Bunning, Dodd and Burr have something in common with Santorum’s early standing, each hopes for a different outcome.

Whether it’s trailing in polls from the get-go, as was the case for Santorum and then-Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) in 2008, or leading but at the mid-40 percent mark in ballot tests like then-Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), all three recent cases demonstrated the difficulty for vulnerable Senators to significantly improve their standing over the course of a campaign.

Santorum trailed now-Sen. Bob Casey (D) 44 percent to 43 percent in a March 2005 Keystone poll and by a wider 49 percent to 35 percent margin in an April 2005 Quinnipiac University survey. Overall,

Santorum never led over the course of two years and lost on Election Day, 59 percent to 41 percent.

In New Hampshire last cycle, Sununu trailed former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) 44 percent to 34 percent in a March 2007 American Research Group survey and trailed in all but one of 35 public polls over the course of the campaign, never topping 45 percent. He lost 52 percent to 45 percent on Election Day.

Of course, each Senate race has some unique characteristics, but Bunning, Dodd and Burr start their re-elections from a position of fundamental weakness.

Bunning’s vulnerability has been known since his narrow victory in 2004. An early Research 2000 survey in February 2009 for the liberal Daily Kos Web site showed Bunning defeating four potential Democratic opponents but still in the mid-40s on the ballot tests. Two months later, the former Hall of Fame pitcher trailed all four opponents and polled in the low to mid-30s, according to a survey by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling.

Dodd’s vulnerability started with headlines and then was realized when a Quinnipiac poll in February showed that 51 percent of Connecticut voters would probably not or definitely not vote to re-elect the Democrat and that more people disapproved (48 percent) than approved (41 percent) of the job that he is doing.

A month later, Quinnipiac showed Dodd in a dead heat with former Rep. Rob Simmons (R), 43 percent to 42 percent. Later in March, a Research 2000 poll had slightly better news, with Dodd besting Simmons 45 percent to 40 percent.

“Their numbers are so bad that it goes well beyond the environment,” said one GOP strategist speaking on the condition of anonymity so that he could speak freely about Dodd and Bunning.

“It doesn’t matter if Obama finds a cure for cancer, Dodd is not coming back to the U.S. Senate,” he added, while predicting that Bunning would lose, too.

In North Carolina, Burr has consistently polled between 37 percent and 46 percent in ballot tests conducted this year by the PPP, which is based in the state. The Republican has led some potential Democratic opponents and trailed state Attorney General Roy Cooper, the party’s top prospect who has yet to announce his intentions. But Burr’s standing is more important than the margin.

Last cycle, Democrats hypothesized that Smith had an electoral ceiling in the mid-40s, and that’s why they weren’t discouraged even when their February 2007 survey showed him ahead of Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) 42 percent to 38 percent. Smith consistently polled in the low 40s throughout the race and received 46 percent on Election Day.

Supporters of Dodd and Burr maintain that the incumbents’ initial numbers are soft because they are still undefined in the voters’ minds.

Considering the significant recent population growth of North Carolina, it’s an easier argument for Burr to make after one term in office. But that doesn’t make him any less vulnerable. He had an extremely low 37 percent favorable/13 percent unfavorable rating in a mid-March poll for the Civitas Institute (R). Plus, he’s running in a tossup state that President Barack Obama carried very narrowly.

For Dodd, it’s much tougher to redefine himself after representing the state for almost three decades. He had 91 percent name identification in Quinnipiac’s March poll (46 percent favorable/45 percent unfavorable) and 87 percent name identification in the March survey by Research 2000 (47 percent favorable/40 percent unfavorable).

In the spring of the year before their losses, Santorum’s name identification was 60 percent while Sununu was closer to 70 percent.

Vulnerable incumbents tend to overestimate their ability to define their race as a choice between two candidates. This cycle, Democrats will attempt to tie Simmons to former President George W. Bush, former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, while Republicans will try to use Cooper’s record against him and declare whomever winds up the Democratic nominee in Kentucky too liberal for the state.

But it doesn’t always work. In the previous cycle, Sununu was confident that the race would shift once he refocused voters on Shaheen’s record as governor — the message that helped him defeat her six years earlier. Santorum, Sununu and Smith spent a combined $45 million trying to reframe their races to no avail.

Bunning and Dodd will likely watch the other party compete in a competitive primary, when Santorum and Sununu’s challengers had clear paths to the nomination. But that doesn’t guarantee success either, since the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee helped drag now-Sen. Jeff Merkley (Ore.) through the primary last cycle before he knocked off Smith.

But while Santorum, Sununu and Smith ran in states trending against them, Bunning and Dodd are running for re-election in more favorable territory. Obama carried Connecticut with 61 percent and Oregon with 57 percent, while Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried Kentucky with 58 percent.

Democrats believe this is most significant for Dodd, who simply needs to remind Democratic voters about the good things that the Senator has done for them. “I would much rather have to win back Democrats than have to win over Republicans,” Dodd campaign manager Jay Howser said.

And while Santorum and Sununu ran into a political headwind, next year’s political environment is uncertain. “Political die is not cast yet on next year’s election,” said one GOP strategist familiar with Burr’s race.

Still, using recent history as a guide, the longer an incumbent is mired at less than 50 percent, the more difficult it becomes to break out on Election Day.