Matt Bevin’s victory in the Kentucky governor’s race is yet another sobering reminder that polling is a risky business. And for some Republicans, Kentucky could be a glimmer of hope for GOP Sen. David Vitter’s gubernatorial bid in Louisiana.
Bevin’s victory wasn’t the political shockwave on par with Eric Cantor’s primary loss in 2014, but the Republican’s margin of victory was stunning.
Recent polls, public and private, show Vitter trailing Democrat John Bel Edwards by between 12 and 20 points, but it is possible that those polls understate the Republican’s support in Louisiana, as they did for Bevin in Kentucky.
Of the six public polls since the end of September, five of them showed Conway in the lead with margins between 2 and 5 points, including a survey from Bevin’s campaign in the middle of October. A sixth poll, an automated survey by GOP firm Vox Populi Oct. 26-27, showed Conway and Bevin tied at 44 percent. That was the last public poll in the race, and private polls didn’t hint at the final 9-point margin either.
In the face of a clear, albeit narrow, trend line toward Conway, we moved the race from pure Tossup to Tossup/Tilts Democratic in the middle of October. But we also wrote that Bevin would need the vast majority of undecideds to swing in his direction, in spite of his negative image.
That looks like almost exactly what happened.
Conway consistently polled between 42 percent and 45 percent and received 44 percent on Election Day, compared to 53 percent for Bevin.
“Clearly they weren’t undecided,” said one Kentucky Democratic strategist on Tuesday night. “They had made up their minds. They just weren’t telling pollsters.”
A second Democratic strategist added that the undecided voters were disproportionately white, and Democrats should not have counted on any of them coming to Conway. In the final days, Republicans did a good job of turning the focus of the race toward cultural issues, driving turnout in rural counties.
Earlier on Tuesday, one GOP strategist thought independent Dale Curtis would need to be at 2 percent to 3 percent or less for Bevin to win narrowly. Curtis received nearly 4 percent and Bevin still won by nearly 9 points.
It might be easy to dismiss Bevin’s victory because Kentucky has been trending Republican. But Bevin is only the second Republican to win a gubernatorial race in the Bluegrass State in over 40 years. And, as Daniel Donner of Daily Kos Elections pointed out, Conway’s 44 percent is the worst showing by a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Kentucky since 1863 — yes, when Abraham Lincoln was president.
Bevin won despite being regarded as a flawed candidate, running an unorthodox campaign, being outspent and being called a tax cheat and pathological liar by Democrats and some members of his own party. In the end, Republican and Democratic outside spending was virtually even, but Conway outspent Bevin $6.6 million to $1.7 million on television.
In the end, being a Republican was more important than being liked in Kentucky.
Republicans exerted their only spending advantage in the final days of the race and Bevin’s campaign intentionally closed with a positive message with the candidate to camera, which allies believe was critical to closing the deal.