A poll conducted this month shows that 43% of voters would vote for an unnamed, generic Republican candidate, while 35% would vote for the Democrat and 22% still have not made up their minds.
The same poll asked respondents to identify the political party they are most closely affiliated with. In response, 39% said Democrat, while only 36% said Republican and 26% said independent.
Conducted on Feb. 12, Little Rock-based Impact Management Group polled 1,202 likely Arkansas voters to ask their opinions on the private option issue and a variety of other questions, as well, including the candidates for U.S. Senate, Arkansas governor and Arkansas lieutenant governor. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 2.83%. Poll questions also included voter opinions on Arkansas’ private option plan.
The numbers, which suggests Arkansas voters are willing to break from political ideology in the 2014 election, do not come as a surprise to Dr. Janine Parry, director of the Arkansas Poll at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
"The first thing that came to my mind is this is just typical," she said of the poll numbers. "Arkansans were revealed to be rather schizophrenic in their politics, most generally in the 1968 general election. So it's nothing new to us."
She referred to the long-known tendency among Arkansas voters to "split" their ballots.
"We've done quite a lot of that. We've been consistently independent in our vote choices since that time (1968), so we're very comfortable and we were doing this before the rest of the country. We are very comfortable voting Republican at the top of the ticket and still pretty comfortable identifying as Democratic and voting Democratic on other positions."
Notable examples of ticket splitting at the top of the ticket in Arkansas include Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller's win in 1966 and Gov. Mike Huckabee's ascension to the lieutenant governor's office in 1993, re-election in 1993, and election to a full term as governor in 1998 and a second full term in 2002. In the case of both Republicans, they held statewide office while the General Assembly was controlled by Democrats.
Another recent example would be the 2010 election, which saw Gov. Mike Beebe sweep all 75 counties in the state while those same voters sent then-U.S. Rep. John Boozman, R-Rogers, to his first term in the U.S. Senate.
Clint Reed, a partner at Impact Management Group, said the numbers in his firm's poll are about more than just ballot splitting. He said right-leaning independents are the key.
Specifically, he pointed to the the number of Independents who said they would vote for the Republican, 46%, versus the 13% who said they would vote for the Democrat and the 41% who said they are still undecided.
"Those independent numbers and those Democratic numbers, that's how to explain why that is, why (there is) that discrepancy there. Independents are overwhelmingly supporting the generic GOP candidate."
He also said the "independents are the crucial voting block. It is an advantageous election cycle for Republicans across the board." Reed said with so many independents being right-leaning, the party and its candidates "for the first time count them as one of their own."
It is a trend that he sees continuing in this election cycle.
"In Arkansas, Democrats have long held onto the ability to capture the all important white, male voting bloc. Whether (former U.S. Sen. Dale) Bumpers, (former U.S. Sen. David) Pryor, (former President and former Gov. Bill) Clinton, (Gov. Mike) Beebe. But it's just not the case anymore. We started seeing some of that with the first election of Barack Obama, but saw a lot of it after he took office. The so-called liberal policies, cap and trade, universal health care — these things turned those white male voters off in a substantial way. Democrats in Arkansas have not been able to regain that."
As for whether that means Arkansas becomes solidly red like the states of Alabama, Georgia or Mississippi, Reed said that remains to be seen because Arkansas politics tend to have "pendulum swings."
"That trend is matching what you're seeing in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. But will it hold? Probably not. It's a pendulum that swings. It's all part of the election cycle. Arkansas has been slower in that pendulum swinging back in the strong candidates we've had in Clinton, David Pryor and Beebe."
The real test, he said, will be the 2016 election and the potential candidacy of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who served as Arkansas first lady during her husband's several terms in the governor's mansion.
"The real test will be a Hillary Clinton candidacy for President and how Arkansas would play into that. …The relationships they have, the home state of the former president. Could they change the outlook of what the independent voters see and look like? It's possible. That's the true test. If she runs, does Arkansas become a swing state, a target state in a presidential campaign? It will be awful hard with potentially four Congressional seats in the R column and two Senate seats (possibly held by Republicans) for the Clintons to make this a swing state. That's a far stretch, but that's where Arkansas is in its political growth, if that makes sense."
Parry said Arkansas will not go solidly red until Independents officially make the full commitment to the Republican Party.
"What I think is interesting is those independent leaners aren't committing to the GOP brand. They certainly aren't committing to the Democratic branch, even though the Democrats are losing (self-identified voters). The independents want a finger in both pies."
She said while poll numbers may be good for Republicans, if the party plans to maintain the momentum it had in 2010 and 2012, the party and its candidates will have to work for it.
"The Republicans should recruit good candidates and not just ride the tide," she said. "Clint Reed and others know they were trying to get a bench of candidates and the national tide (in the last two elections) was good for Republicans. It was a one-two punch of finally breaking through for them."