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Sunday, September 21, 2014, 3:32 a.m.
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Many polls, but no Senate-race leader

Pryor, Cotton contest called tossup

By Claudia Lauer

This article was published August 3, 2014 at 3:52 a.m.

At least two new political polls examining the race for Arkansas' U.S. Senate seat were released last week, but neither showed a clear winner or even the same front-runner.

With more than 35 polls released in less than a year looking at the race between Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor and his Republican challenger U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, nonpartisan election trackers have been unwilling to predict a winner.

Four out of five major news or research outfits tracking congressional races have listed the Arkansas contest as a tossup in the past two weeks, and the fifth outlet listed the race as a "toss up/tilts Republican."

"We had the race as leans-Republican earlier this year and moved it to a tossup in early April, that's where we still see it," said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan weekly newsletter and website that tracks congressional politics and predicts electoral outcomes produced by staff members at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Kondik said it's often not useful to look at individual polls because some are paid for by the campaigns, some might have polled samples of residents that don't represent the voting population or some might have other flaws in methodology. He said some seem to be reliable, but the bigger picture is a close race too hard to call.

"Some of those are all over the map. The average of the polls is usually pretty close to being right," Kondik said. "Right now, I would rather be Cotton than Pryor, given that Cotton is the challenger, and Pryor as the incumbent isn't reaching close to 50 percent [in the polls]."

But Kondik said he's still not willing to move the barometer on the race from being a tossup.

The five major poll tracking outfits have their own methodologies, as well, with each counting or discounting polls for various reasons, including those Kondik mentioned.

Of the 37 polls tracked among those outlets, 20 were paid for by Republican groups or conducted by a traditionally Republican polling operation. Of those, 16 showed Cotton in the lead. Three of those Republican polls gave Pryor a slight edge, and one showed a tie between the candidates.

Seven of the tracked polls were paid for by Democratic organizations or conducted by traditionally Democratic polling groups. Of those, six gave Pryor the lead, and one predicted a tie between the candidates.

The 10 polls conducted by nonpartisan polling operations were split evenly, with five giving Pryor a lead and five giving Cotton the lead.

The majority of polls conducted in May, June and July put Cotton ahead, but more than half of the polls in those three months were conducted or paid for by Republican operations.

Local political watchers were unmoved by the recent spate of polling. Several said that with three months left until Election Day, they were unwilling to make a prediction.

Joseph Giammo, a University of Arkansas at Little Rock political science professor, said that even though the polls don't show a clear winner, they're helpful to the campaigns.

"I guess they matter in a couple of ways," Giammo said. "One, they are a signal to potential donors. When you see a race like this that goes back and forth, donors who are looking for the most impact when they're donating money see this is a race where it can make a difference. Two, it convinces campaigns it's going to be extremely important to turn out their voters."

He added, "I can't tell you with any confidence at this point, who's going to win."

Hal Bass, a political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University, agreed that a trend is more important than any one poll.

"There is a lot of volatility in those polls," he said. "You need to look at the aggregate, look at the frequency of the polls so you can get some sense of a trend instead of just a single picture."

Bass said he's also unwilling to predict a winner in the close race.

"But given the change in the political climate in Arkansas, I think Pryor is performing well," he said. "We are in a very polarized and competitive environment, and regardless of who you are, it's going to be awfully hard to get to that 50 percent."

Both campaigns said they're paying attention to the polls, but are tracking the race with internal polling as well. Both said they feel like their campaigns are in a good position.

Cotton spokesman David Ray said the Republican's favorable ratings have climbed in the past few months.

"Tom's favorable ratings are higher than they've ever been in this race," Ray said. "Sen. Pryor doesn't have the polls to show that. He is continuing to be mired in the low to mid-40s in almost every poll."

He said the campaign will continue to highlight Pryor's voting history and the differences between the two candidates.

"We don't put too much stock in any one poll because some show you up, some show you down. We can just control the campaign we run," Ray said. "For us the number that has not changed is 90 percent, which is the percentage that Mark Pryor has voted with President Obama. That's the number we're going to continue to focus on."

Cotton and several outside groups that support him have repeatedly highlighted the statistic from the Congressional Quarterly roll call vote study.

Among other things, it tracks the percentage of times a legislator votes with the president specifically on legislation he has endorsed or opposed. According to the study, in 2013 Pryor voted 90 percent of the time in support of the president.

But Pryor's campaign said those numbers can be misleading because those votes include nonpolicy legislation such as presidential appointments for judicial spots or undersecretary positions. Those nonpolicy votes are not weighted differently than policy votes, so if a legislator voted for eight appointments and against two large-policy packages, the study would show that the legislator voted with the president 80 percent of the time.

Erik Dorey, Pryor's assistant campaign director, said the incumbent is keeping tabs on outside poll numbers, but is confident in his position.

"We know where this race stands, and we know that Sen. Pryor is in exactly the position he wants to be right now with a slight lead over Congressman Cotton," Dorey said. "We have known all along and have said from the beginning that this race would be close. But in the end, the Arkansans going to the polls in November will be considering two different candidates."

Dorey said the campaign will continue over the next three months to highlight those differences.

"Mark Pryor is a reliable and responsible voice for Arkansans that stands in contrast with Tom Cotton's reckless and irresponsible votes against Arkansans and in lock step with the political billionaires funding his campaign," he said.

Both candidates pointed to the close polling numbers as proof that expensive attack ads from outside groups had not worked on voters.

But Giammo said the close polls are likely to mean those outside groups aren't done spending thousands more on advertising.

"The market here has been saturated for some time," he said. "It's likely that in order to move those numbers, something has to happen to allow those candidates to capitalize on. It could be a scandal or a major state issue ... but if all that happens is campaigning, meeting with voters and continuing to run commercials, you won't see a huge swing one way or the other."

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