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story.lead_photo.caption President Donald Trump gestures as he listens to a guest speaker on stage at a campaign rally at Phoenix Goodyear Airport in Goodyear, Ariz., on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) (AP / Ross D. Franklin )

With Election Day nearing, the Republican Party is surging in the Natural State, surpassing the numbers from four years ago, the 2020 Arkansas Poll learned from respondents.

The 22nd annual survey, which is sponsored by the University of Arkansas' Diane D. Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society, was released Wednesday morning.

The poll of very likely voters heavily favors Republican President Donald Trump over Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, with the incumbent topping his previous winning totals among state voters.

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, with no Democratic challenger, is on pace to the claim most lopsided victory ever recorded by a Republican seeking the job, according to those polled.

[RELATED: Full coverage of elections in Arkansas » arkansasonline.com/elections/]

With the election looming, Trump led Biden 65%-32% in the Arkansas poll, with 3% supporting other candidates.

Four years ago, Trump beat Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in Arkansas, 60.6% to 33.7%, with other candidates trailing.

If Wednesday's poll ends up mirroring the final results, it would be the largest Republican presidential victory in the state since Richard Nixon captured 68.8% of the vote in 1972 against Democrat George McGovern.

In the Senate race, the Little Rock incumbent topped his only opponent, Libertarian Ricky Dale Harrington of Pine Bluff, 75%-20% with 5% expressing support for someone else.

Republican Party of Arkansas Chairman Doyle Webb said he was "a little surprised" by the size of the Republican advantage, but not by the lead itself.

"The poll tells me that Arkansans are conservative, and that they're excited about the president and Sen. Cotton," he said.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

The results show "that the Democrats are out of touch with Arkansas, and that their candidates are out of touch with Arkansas," he added.

Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Michael John Gray said the numbers are "not shocking."

"We knew that Trump was popular in the state," he said.

While Georgia, North Carolina and Texas have been referred to as battleground states, this and other recent surveys suggest Arkansas is still safely Republican.

"We were one of the last Southern states to go completely red. Some of these states are ahead of us in that process," Gray said.

Democrats, long a dominant force in Arkansas politics, outnumbered Republicans by double digits early in this century and remained slightly ahead in the Arkansas Poll as recently as 2014.

Since then, there has been a major shift that will be difficult for Democrats to reverse, said Janine Parry, a University of Arkansas political science professor and the poll's director.

"I think, for me, the overall message is that Arkansas' wholesale party flip is a sealed deal," she said.

While polls in other states suggest Trump's support has waned since 2016, that doesn't appear to be the case in Arkansas, she said.

"Those wide margins for the Republican incumbents, particularly in a national environment that appears to be moving in the other direction, tells me a lot about what's happening with Arkansas [and] what's happening in Arkansas for the foreseeable future," she said.

The number of self-identified Republicans in the state continues to grow, with 44% claiming the label. That's more than twice the 20% who called themselves Democrats. Of the rest, 29% were independents, 6% belonged to another party and 1% did not express a preference.

Among independents, 52% said they leaned Republican and 30% tilted Democrat. Fifteen percent said they were just independents and 4% did not know or declined to say.

A majority of very likely voters -- 52% -- described themselves as conservative, 30% were moderates, 16% were liberals and 2% didn't know or declined to say.

The survey of 591 very likely Arkansas voters was conducted between Oct. 9-21 by Issues & Answers Network Inc., a nonpartisan market research company from Virginia Beach, Va.

It had a margin of error of +/- 3.9%.

Sixty percent were interviewed on landlines; 40% on cellphones.

Those agreeing to answer the questions were more likely to be white (81%) than Arkansans overall (73%). At 55%, they were also disproportionately female (the statewide average is 51%) and disproportionately college educated (32% vs. 22% statewide).

They were also older than the average Arkansas adult. Fifty-five percent were married; statewide, the figure is 49%.

Older Americans, women and those with college degrees traditionally have voted at higher rates than their counterparts nationwide, according to U.S. Census data. Blacks voted at higher rates than whites in 2008 and 2012 but lagged in 2016.

Matthew Mears, the Libertarian Senate candidate's campaign manager, said the Arkansas Poll may not accurately reflect this year's voter demographics.

"I just don't believe it to be a good indicator of what we'll see on election night," he added.

In the Arkansas Poll, 62% supported referred Issue 1, which would extend a half-cent sales tax for roads and highways. Sixty percent backed referred Issue 2, which change the state's term-limits. Fifty-nine percent opposed referred Issue 3, which would make it harder to change the constitution or put issues on the ballot.

The margin of error for the referendum questions was +/- 4.8%; only 405 of those polled had an opinion.

In the broader survey, most participants had favorable views of Trump's first term; 63% approved of his performance as president, while 36% disapproved and 1% offered no opinion.

Participants also approved of Trump's response to the covid-19 pandemic, which has claimed more than 225,000 lives in this country since March.

Of those surveyed, 37% said Trump's handling of the crisis had been excellent -- a top score that even hospitals couldn't match. Another 22% said it had been good; 7% rated it "only fair" and 33% categorized it as poor.

State elected officials were less likely to get extremely high or extremely low ratings for their handling of the public health emergency. Fourteen percent rated the state response as excellent, 40% good, 27% only fair and 17% poor. Three percent offered no opinion.

Sixteen percent said the response of local officials had been excellent; 44% good; 22% only fair and 15% poor, while 3% declined to rate them.

Arkansas hospitals and medical centers received high ratings for covid-19 response: 34% excellent; 44% good; 13% only fair and 5% poor with 4% not saying.

The sample group gave high marks to state Republican office holders as well.

• Gov. Asa Hutchinson received the highest approval rating among those polled, with 70% approving, 25% disapproving and 4% declining to weigh in.

• Cotton's approval rating, 62%, was double his 31% disapproval rating. Seven percent didn't know or wouldn't say how they rate him.

• Republican U.S. Sen. John Boozman drew approval from 52% and disapproval from 26%, while 22% not offering an opinion.

Arkansans were less positive about the Black Lives Matter movement, with 23% supporting it strongly; 21% supporting it somewhat; 12% opposing it somewhat and 40% strongly opposing it. Three percent didn't offer an opinion.

Asked to name the most important problem facing Arkansans today, 24% said health care; 23% the economy and 20% politicians/politics.

Despite the threat posed to public health and the economy by covid-19, Arkansans like where their state is headed.

Nearly four in five -- 79% -- said the state is headed in the right direction, up from 73% in 2019.

Despite the covid-related spike in unemployment, 38% said they are better off financially than they were a year ago. A plurality, 46%, said their financial circumstances were the same, while 16% said they were worse off.

Arkansans are also optimistic about the future, with 36% predicting they'll be better off financially a year from now and only 5% foreseeing a decline. Another 51% expect the status quo to continue, while 7% didn't hazard a guess.

Arkansas Poll: Republican landslide ahead
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