The Tennessee Journal first reported details of three separate reputable polls that have been conducted in Tennessee which were focused on the 2018 Senate race to fill the seat being vacated by Senator Bob Corker. With the August Republican primary still nine months away, the polls all show Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn with a significant lead in statewide name recognition, a strong edge in approval versus disapproval numbers and a large margin in either a head to head matchup with former 8th District Congressman Stephen Fincher or a three way race with Fincher and former Americans for Prosperity state director Andy Ogles.
The polls were all conducted before physician Rolando Toyos, formerly of Memphis, but now of Nashville, entered the race.
All three surveys show Blackburn well ahead of Fincher, with each of the polls having been conducted in late September, early October, and late October. Details from the private surveys were made available to The Tennessee Journal as well as The Tennessee Star. Although Fincher supporters have been claiming that the race is a “dead heat” the poll numbers tell a different story.
First, any candidate running in the August Republican primary — for any office in Tennessee — must avoid any appearance of separation between themselves and President Donald Trump. In June, a Tennessee Star poll of 1007 likely GOP Primary voters showed the president enjoying sky high approval ratings.
When asked “How would you rate the job performance of President Donald Trump,” 86 percent of likely Republican primary voters in Tennessee said they approve of his job performance, while only 11 percent said they disapprove, a remarkable 75 percent margin of approval over disapproval.
The three more recent polls show little difference in the President’s approval rating among Republicans in Tennessee, where Trump carried 92 out of 95 counties against Hillary Clinton in November, 2016. The September 28 and October 4 polls each gave Trump an identical 85-13 approval-disapproval edge while the October 27 data narrowed his approval margin only slightly to 77-14.
Conservative Republican strategist Steve Gill, who reviewed the data for The Tennessee Star, says the war of words between Trump and Corker clearly hasn’t hurt the President’s popularity in Tennessee. “At this point, candidates wanting to win a Republican primary can’t afford to be ‘out Trumped’ by their opponents,” he said. “The real question is whether you can question his personality and yet strongly support him on his key issues without suffering with the voters. I think any separation from Trump on either front is risky.”
Two things really jump out from the polling data at this point, according to Gill. First, Blackburn has a huge name recognition edge over Fincher in all three polls, with Blackburn having relatively small percentages of Republican primary voters who have not heard of her. In the three successive polls, Blackburn had 12%, 24%, and 13% of respondents who were asked about a positive or negative impression of her who had “never heard of her.” Meanwhile, Fincher had 60%, 67% and 54% who haven’t heard of him. Marsha also enjoyed huge approval-disapproval margins in all three polls, 57-12%, 48-14% and 50-13%, respectively.
“Both have room to grow their support among those who haven’t heard of them and among undecided voters, and a well funded media campaign can certainly close the gap when it comes to helping voters recognize your name,” Gill said. “But in a primary season where we have two heavily contested statewide races, 3-4 contested congressional races and over 30 open or competitive state house and senate races it will be hard to buy name recognition much less create a positive impression as the noise level intensifies. Fincher will have to spend a lot to catch up, and soon.”
Gill also pointed out that with Blackburn’s high approval ratings he may have to go negative before he can raise his own name identification and personal brand. “Going on the attack always creates a backlash, even if you hide behind an independent expenditure. And attacking a popular female candidate carries additional danger for Fincher,” he noted.
The head to head matchups were the second major item that caught Gill’s eye. The September 28 and October 27 polls both surveyed a three way race between Blackburn, Fincher and Ogles. The September poll divided the results as follows: Blackburn 52%, Fincher 8%, Ogles 5% and 35% undecided. The October poll produced similar results: Blackburn 50%, Fincher 5%, Ogles 3% and 40% undecided.
The October 4 poll was a head to head matchup between Blackburn and Fincher. In that poll Blackburn won over Fincher 49-14%, with 36% undecided. That poll also broke down the results by Congressional district, with Blackburn winning every district in the state, including Fincher’s old 8th District, now held by Rep. David Kustoff.
“At this early stage,” Gill said, “there is still a big portion of undecided GOP primary voters up for grabs.”
“But with Blackburn already right at 50% in all the polls Fincher will have to bring her down several points and then win almost all the undecided votes in order to win. That will be a tall order,” he added.
As to the prospects of former Democrat Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen entering the Senate race Gill said he expects him to run.
“However,” Gill warned, “the last time Bredesen ran a competitive statewide race was about 16 years ago. At that time there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, no iPhones and the first episode of The Apprentice had never aired. Plus, Democrats still controlled the state legislature. It’s a different world than the last time he faced a tough opponent, and he only beat Van Hilleary by about 50,000 votes.”