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New Senate poll shows Cotton maintaining narrow lead over Pryor

story from Talk Business & Politics, a TCW content partner

A new Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College survey of 1,780 likely Arkansas voters shows U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, with a 44-42% lead over two-term incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor.

The poll, which was conducted July 22-25 across all four Congressional districts, has a margin of error of +/-2.3%.

Q: In the race for U.S. Senate, the candidates are Green Party Candidate Mark Swaney, Democratic Senator Mark Pryor, Libertarian Nathan LaFrance, and Republican Congressman Tom Cotton. If the election for U.S. Senate were today, which candidate would you support?
4%      Green candidate Mark Swaney
42%    Democratic Senator Mark Pryor
3%      Libertarian Nathan LaFrance
44%    Republican Congressman Tom Cotton
7%      Undecided

“Our latest poll indicates this race is still extremely competitive with neither candidate near 50%,” said Talk Business & Politics Editor-in-Chief Roby Brock. “With the daily pounding each campaign is administering to the other, with the barrage of ads flooding the airwaves from both sides, Cotton and Pryor seem to be drafting off one another.”

Two previous Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College polls showed the race within the margin of error but with Pryor in the lead. In October 2013, shortly after Cotton entered the race, Pryor held a 42-41% lead. In April 2014, Pryor had a 45.5-42.5% lead. The Libertarian and Green party candidates each settled at 2% in the April survey.

The narrow lead in the Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College poll is similar to that of a poll released July 9 by Little Rock-based Impact Management that showed Cotton with a 47%-43% edge over Pryor. The poll had a margin of error of +/- 2.72%.

DEMOGRAPHIC TRENDS
In the latest poll, three critical demographics provide insight on how the high-profile Senate campaign is unfolding.

First, Cotton is winning handily among Independent voters. Cotton leads Pryor by a 49.5-33% margin. But Pryor has a clear advantage with female and African-American voters, keys to victory that his campaign has emphasized. Pryor leads Cotton among female voters by a 45-40% margin and he leads Cotton 73%-16% among African-Americans.

Another key demographic are voters 65 and older. Both campaigns are vying for this age group known for consistent turnout, but also a segment of the population that has floated in its loyalty between Democratic and Republican candidates. Cotton leads Pryor 46-42% in the 65+ voter age group.

“This poll indicates what we all have known for quite some time, that this is going to be a very competitive race until the end, and GOTV (get out the vote) will most likely decide the winner,” said Clint Reed, strategist with Little Rock-based Impact Management Group, which works traditionally with GOP candidates.

“One point on emphasis is that Cotton consistently wins ‘independent’ votes by a hefty margin. Since 2010, these ‘independent’ voters have buoyed Republican candidates in Arkansas and that advantage continues to hold to form,” Reed added.

“If this poll had sampled African-American voters at the turnout we saw in 2010 — and there’s every reason to believe it will be higher this time — then Mark Pryor is solidly ahead,” said Robert McLarty, Democratic campaign strategist with Little Rock-based Markham Group.

“Ultimately, turnout will dictate the outcome and I feel confident that voters this year will respond to Mark Pryor’s message versus the reckless voting record of Tom Cotton. Mark Pryor would win if the election were held today, and he’ll win in November,” he added.

ANALYSIS

Dr. Jay Barth, professor of political science at Hendrix College, helped analyze the survey results.

The high-stakes race for the U.S. Senate remains locked in a near dead heat 100 days before Election Day. Our last survey showed U.S. Senator Mark Pryor with a marginal lead. This survey, with a sample of nearly 1,800 Arkansans, shows a similar marginal lead for Congressman Tom Cotton (44% to 42%).

It will take more time to see if this marks any legitimate shift in Cotton’s direction or, instead, remains statistical noise in a race that has been airtight for months. In all likelihood, fall debates (still in discussion) mark the next major opportunity for either candidate to create space in the race.

In examining the cross tabs in the survey, expected patterns emerge.

A gender gap continues to express itself in the race with Pryor leading among women (45% to 40%) but Cotton is running up a much larger lead among men (49% 37%). The poll was weighted to match the turnout in the last mid-term election (2010), but the Cotton campaign hopes that it can create a November electorate that is closer to even in terms of gender composition.

In terms of partisanship, each candidate has coalesced fellow partisans, although Pryor is running slightly more strongly with Democrats than is Cotton with Republicans. Importantly, Cotton has established a solid lead with independent voters (49.5% to 33%).

Cotton’s small lead is driven by his support among white Arkansans (47% to 39%). Pryor is showed to be gaining the votes of just under three-quarters of African-Americans with Cotton actually performing relatively strongly among this group (16%). The Democrat’s campaign hopes to both increase the share of the Arkansas vote that is African-American (although this sample is similar to our April survey of the race that showed Pryor ahead) as well as increasing the share of the African-American vote won by Pryor to margins more historically seen.

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Finally, some important geographical divisions are showing themselves. While Pryor has a solid lead in the central Arkansas 2nd Congressional District (48% to 42%), Cotton leads in the other three congressional districts with a strong lead in the 3rd Congressional District (45% to 37%), a solid 46%-41% advantage in the 4th Congressional District he represents in Congress, and a marginal lead in the 1st Congressional District of east and southeast Arkansas.

After millions of dollars of spending and many more millions to come in the closing months of the campaign, it all adds up to an exceedingly close race in a contest that may well determine control of the U.S. Senate. (Editor’s note: Dr. Barth has been a financial contributor to the Pryor campaign.)

METHODOLOGY & DEMOGRAPHICS
This survey was conducted by Talk Business Research and Hendrix College on Tuesday-Friday, July 22-25, 2014. The poll, which has a margin of error of +/-2.3%, was completed using IVR survey technology and through live contact calls.

Approximately 18% of the voters in our sample were contacted via cell phone with live callers. This is in response to the increased reliance by voters on cell phones. Additionally, we applied our standard weighting to the poll results based on age, gender, and Congressional district.

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