Poll Reveals Early Frustration Among Independents

By John C. Davis

As Arkansas continues to struggle through the COVID-19 health crisis and subsequent economic recession, Arkansans’ views on the job performances of some of its most notable leaders are worth reflecting upon. Last week, the results of a poll conducted by Arkansas Talk Business and Politics and Hendrix College were released. The findings from the poll—conducted by a reputable operation with sound methodology and a solid track record—found that Governor Hutchinson’s overall job approval was at an impressive 62% overall with self-reported independents approving of his performance by a 64% to 20% margin—reflecting approval of his balanced approach to enacting safety measures amid the pandemic while also keeping the Arkansas economy afloat.

The largely positive impression among survey respondents for Hutchinson, a Republican, was overshadowed by the surprisingly low marks Republicans President Trump and Senator Cotton received. While partisan identifiers in the poll did what we’d expect them to do—Republicans polled expressed considerable approval for their co-partisans while Democrats expressed disapproval of the job performances of Trump and Cotton—it was the majority of independents in the sample who disapproved of both men that caught my attention. Among independents, when asked, “Do you approve or disapprove of the job of Donald Trump as President?” 46% approved, 50% disapproved, and 4% were unsure. Likewise, when asked the same question regarding the job performance of Senator Tom Cotton, 44% of independents approved, 47% of independents disapproved, and 9% were unsure. In short, both Trump and Cotton were “under water”—garnering support from fewer than half of the independents polled.

A poll such as this, conducted months out from an election, tells us what people think at the present time and cannot be used to predict electoral outcomes. If similar results from an equally reputable poll in Arkansas emerge in, say, October, alarm bells would certainly be going off among candidates and their campaigns. However, in June, it is a whole other matter. So…why does this matter? Well, over the last few election cycles, Arkansas has undergone one of the swiftest partisan shifts in modern U.S. history—from one of the most reliably Democratic strongholds to solidly Republican. As recently as 2010, state constitutional offices, the U.S. Congressional and Senate delegations, and both chambers in the General Assembly were majority Democratic. Today, Republicans dominate election cycles in the Natural State. However, this poll indicates President Trump is within the margin of error—essentially tied—with the presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden in a state Donald Trump carried by 27 points in 2016. That’s right, twenty-seven. Equally surprising is the poll finding that Senator Cotton, a first-term senator who regularly is named as a potential prospect for a cabinet position within Trump’s administration or an eventual presidential candidate received unfavorable marks from independents in his state.

What does it all mean? My best guess: President Trump is still very popular among GOP faithful in Arkansas and, in my opinion, still the favorite to claim the state’s 6 Electoral College votes in November. This poll tells me that, at this very early stage in the election season (recall, President Trump nor his opponent have even been officially nominated by their respective parties) Trump’s advantage in Arkansas is softer than I would have imagined. However, I do not see a great deal of movement between Republican approval or Democratic disapproval of President Trump and anticipate a significant portion of the state’s “independents” to shift toward Trump’s camp come November. He likely wins Arkansas although with a smaller margin in 2020 than in 2016.

Senator Cotton’s relatively poor showing in the poll may be in part indicative of his high visibility on national media outlets and his vocal support for many of President Trump’s positions. Normally, I do not think his close alignment to many—although not all—Trump Administration initiatives would hurt the junior senator back home. However, given the global pandemic, the recession, and the recent downward trend of President Trump’s approval numbers in leading national polls such as Gallup, it appears Senator Cotton is caught in the wake of a momentary expression of frustration by a portion of Arkansas voters. However, he has little reason to be concerned about his chances for re-election in the fall. Senator Cotton’s only opposition on the 2020 ballot will be a Libertarian candidate, Ricky Dale Harrington Jr. and Dan Whitfield, who is campaigning as an independent. Senator Cotton has a significant advantage in fundraising, he is an up and comer in his party, and Arkansas is poised to remain a strong GOP state in 2020.

Six Years Later: Senator Cotton’s Re-election

By John C. Davis

What a difference six years can make. In 2014, Tom Cotton, then a Republican U.S. Representative, ran against Democratic Senator Mark Pryor, a two-term incumbent, former Arkansas Attorney General and son to one of Arkansas’s most prominent public officials in the 20th Century—former U.S. House of Representative, Governor, and U.S. Senator David Pryor. Given the strategic importance of the seat to Democrats seeking to hold their majority in the U.S. Senate, and the remarkable fundraising networks of both candidates, this was an incredibly expensive race for a relatively small-population state. Early on, the contest was not a forgone conclusion, though all indications were that it would be a tough seat for Democrats to hold. Mark Pryor was first elected in to the U.S. Senate in 2002 after defeating incumbent Tim Hutchinson—the first GOP Senator popularly elected in Arkansas. Pryor shared the last name of another highly regarded former public servant, enjoyed the support of Arkansans in two past Senate contests—in 2002 and in 2008 (when a Republican candidate didn’t even file to run against him). However, in 2014, Pryor faced a formidable opponent, an Arkansas native, military veteran with an ivy league pedigree and a particularly strong following among conservative academic circles and national thought leaders.

The end result of this particularly heated race, which featured an unprecedented barrage of campaign dollars going to ad buys from both sides, was a victory for Tom Cotton over Mark Pryor, 56.5% to 39.4%. A solid victory for Tom Cotton and Republicans, who had only very recently begun to make significant gains in one of the last Southern states to remain a Democratic stronghold into the 21st Century.

The race in 2014 was significant in many ways. First, nationally, it resulted in another GOP victory in an election cycle where they would claim the U.S. Senate majority. Symbolically, the win was particularly sweet for Republicans as, up to that point, this Senate seat had been one of only a few in the South held by a Democratic incumbent. Back in Arkansas, this contest served, as it would turn out, as the final match for the political balance of the state. The casual observer might forget, but only a few years earlier, Democrats could claim the Governorship, majorities in both the state’s House and Senate (chambers that had remained under Democratic control since Reconstruction), three out of four U.S. House of Representatives, and both U.S. Senators. Even after Republican gains in 2010, Arkansas remained largely Democratic. Following election night 2014, however, Republicans would claim the Governor’s Mansion, both U.S. Senate seats, and all four U.S. House seats, expanded majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, and all other state constitutional offices—a breathtaking shift in partisan preference in Arkansas on display.

Cotton’s re-election bid in 2020 is a stark reminder of the dramatic partisan shift in Arkansas, the remarkable strength of the Republican brand in the state, and a state Democratic Party in disarray. Recall from earlier, in 2008, the incumbent Democratic candidate for re-election to the same U.S. Senate seat faced no GOP opposition. Now, in 2020, Senator Cotton will face no major party opponent and, thus, likely enjoy a similar stroll to re-election.

Today, Cotton is one of the most visible and polarizing Senators in the country. A regular on national news programs, the junior senator from Arkansas recently penned an Op-Ed for the New York Times advocating for the use of the military to address the civil unrest arising after the killing of George Floyd. Regardless of one’s views on the use of military force on civilians, the opinion piece—and the debate and attention it garnered—is another reminder of Senator Cotton’s ascendance among Republican ranks and his growing public profile among GOP supporters.

Meanwhile, Democrats in Arkansas don’t have a candidate to challenge him in November. After enthusiastically campaigning for months, Joshua Mahony filed to run against Senator Cotton as a Democrat, only to drop out moments after filing ended—effectively preventing his party from finding another candidate to compete in his place. At the time of Mahony’s shocking departure from the race, the former candidate cited health issues within his family as the reason for dropping out. However, reporting from the Arkansas Democrat Gazette led to speculation of other, campaign-related reasons for his dropping out. Regardless of the reason, the fact remains, that Senator Cotton now faces no major party opponent in 2020—a very different environment than he found himself in 2014.

Then again, politically, Arkansas is a very different environment today than it was just a few election cycles ago.