Topeka Voters in Kansas are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with their choice of presidential candidates this year, but if the election were held today, Republican Donald Trump would most likely walk away as the winner.
Still, Trump has not yet convinced a majority of Kansas voters to support him, leaving a slim possibility that Democrat Hillary Clinton could gain some ground here.
Those are the findings of a recent poll by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University, sponsored by nine Kansas media outlets including the Lawrence Journal-World.
The poll also showed a high level of dissatisfaction with the current Kansas Legislature, while Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s approval rating has dropped to a record low 15 percent.
The survey of 487 likely voters was conducted July 11-21 and had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points. It was completed just before Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, and three days before the start of the Democratic National Convention.
“I think in some ways we’re reflecting kind of the malaise you see nationwide, and in other ways I think this is a reaction to some Kansas-specific dilemmas,” said Kansas University political science professor Patrick Miller.
Among the key findings of the survey:
• Trump currently leads Clinton in Kansas, 44-27 percent, with 16 percent still undecided. Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is drawing support from 7 percent of likely voters, while 6 percent said they intend to vote for someone else.
• In the 1st Congressional District, among 176 likely voters, the Republican primary between Rep. Tim Huelskamp and challenger Roger Marshall is a statistical dead heat. Marshall fares better among voters who are “very likely” to go to the polls Aug. 2, while Huelskamp leads among those who are “somewhat likely” to vote.
• Only 15 percent said they are “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with Gov. Sam Brownback’s performance, while 77 percent are dissatisfied, including 60 percent who are “very” dissatisfied. Only 36 percent of self-identified “strong Republicans” said they approve of Brownback’s performance. If he were running for re-election today, only 22 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for him.
• Only 25 percent said they are generally satisfied with the performance of the Kansas Legislature, while 60 percent said they are dissatisfied.
• On the issue of school funding, only 33 percent said they approve of the way the Kansas Supreme Court has handled the issue. But that’s is three times higher than the number who approve of the Legislature’s handling of the issue (11 percent).
Gary Brinker, director of the Docking Institute, said the survey shows Trump is “highly likely” to win Kansas. But other analysts put it more directly, saying the race in Kansas is out of reach for Clinton.
“I think it probably is,” said Michael Smith, who teaches political science at Emporia State University. “A lot of times, undecideds are people that have trouble committing, rather than people who are truly undecided. There’s more than one kind of undecided. There are people who have absolutely no idea what they’re doing in the fall, and then there’s another group that’s waiting to wooed by the candidate they’ll probably vote for.”
“I’m sure there are some Hillary people in that group, so Hillary hasn’t really closed the deal with some of her voters,” he said. “But in Kansas, I would have to think the Trump supporters would be a larger group who are in that supposedly-undecided group and they’re just waiting for Trump to close the deal.”
Impact on legislative races
The survey did not offer much encouragement for candidates further down the ballot in races for the Kansas Legislature this year.
Presidential races tend to drive voter turnout, and the more enthusiastic voters are for their party’s presidential candidate, the more likely they are to turn out and vote for the same party’s candidates in other races.
But the Docking Institute poll shows that neither Trump nor Clinton is generating excitement in Kansas, and that could dampen excitement for candidates in other races.
Miller, however, said one thing that could drive local elections are Brownback’s low approval ratings. But he said candidates will have to work to make local elections all about local issues.
“If the November vote is not highly nationalized like 2014 ended up being, and if Kansas voters are thinking about state government when they’re thinking about their vote for the state Legislature, then Brownback’s negatives cast an incredibly long shadow over those races,” Miller said.
Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said Democrats suffered in 2014 largely because of what was perceived as a competitive U.S. Senate race in which Republican Sen. Pat Roberts was battling for re-election.
That race prompted the national Republican Party and other outside interest groups to pour millions of dollars into Kansas to save that Senate seat for Republicans.
“I am convinced to this day that the U.S. Senate race impacted the governor’s race in an adverse way. It hurt Paul,” he said, referring to then-Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paul Davis of Lawrence. “Because if it had been any other election where it was Paul Davis vs. Sam Brownback, without the U.S. Senate race, I think Paul would have done much better, if not in fact win the election.”
ESU’s Smith said the key for Democrats in Kansas will be “to disassociate themselves from the top of the ticket.”
“For Democrats running for local office, their challenge is to restore the sort of (former Gov. Kathleen) Sebelius era, the (former Congressman) Dennis Moore era, even the brief (former Congresswoman) Nancy Boyda era,” he said. “Then you had these communities of people that were not going to vote for a Democrat for president, but they would vote for a Democrat for local office. And really in some ways, that works for the moderate (Republicans) too.”
Republicans, on the other hand, don’t believe Brownback’s approval ratings will have any significant impact on the 2016 races.
“Elections are choices between two or more options; they are not performance rankings,” Kansas Republican Party Executive Director Clay Barker said. “These types of rankings shed little light on voting behavior and the ranking can change substantially in a short period of time.”
“In 2012, the Democrats did polls and concluded Brownback was unpopular,” Barker said. “In the campaign they linked Republican legislative candidates to Brownback. It failed. In 2016, Brownback is not up for election.”
Guns, economy and education
The Docking Institute survey also asked voters about a number of policy issues, including their views on gun control, the state of the economy and school funding. It found:
• More than half of those surveyed (56 percent) said they would support banning people on a no-fly list from owning firearms. A smaller majority (52 percent) support banning military-style assault weapons. And respondents were evenly split on the issue of banning high-capacity ammunition magazines, with 45 percent supporting such a ban and 45 percent opposing it.
• A growing number of people (37 percent) say the Kansas economy is in poor or very poor condition. That’s up from 26 percent who expressed that view in a similar poll in October 2015, and only 15 percent who held that view in October 2014.
• More than two-thirds of those surveyed (69 percent) said they are dissatisfied with the way the Kansas Legislature has handled school funding issues overall, and only about one-third (32 percent) support the bill lawmakers passed during a special session in June to meet equity standards set out by the Kansas Supreme Court.
• Most Kansans are not yet convinced that transgender students should be allowed to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity. Nearly half (49 percent) said they think students should use bathrooms corresponding to their biological sex. Only one-fourth said they should be allowed to use bathrooms opposite of their biological sex, while 26 percent said they had no opinion on the subject.