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.