Thursday, May 24, 2007

Smith's Approval Drops Below Key 50% Benchmark

The monthly Survey USA Senate tracking poll is out for May, and thanks to Senate Guru 2008 (who you should definitely bookmark now and begin following closely as we approach silly season*) we got the tip and can fill you in on the latest results. As the headline indicates, the most notable finding from this latest iteration is that Gordon Smith has fallen below the 50% approval mark, to 48/39. As we've noted before (and SG08 reiterates), any incumbent running with less than majority approval earns the label of "vulnerable" for his or her next election.

The 48% approval represents a 10-point dropoff since the beginning of the year, when Smith was basking in his "possibly criminal" speech about Iraq, and is the lowest since last June--only the third time in two years that his approval has fallen under 50%. It remains to be seen whether the May results represent a temporary blip, or a harbinger of further drops from the 50-51% baseline the last year (tossing out the post-speech spike that has now ebbed), but even the former is not encouraging news for Smith.

Beyond the top number, the most interesting context is provided by reviewing the subgroup result among Republicans (which you can find along with a host of other breakdowns by using the dropdown box in the upper left corner of the trend graph). As late as August of last year (when he was still demagoguing Democrats on the war), Smith enjoyed 71% approval within his own party. He has since tumbled a full 16 points, to May's 55/36 rating--equalling his lowest approval of the past two years.

Smith's approval among Republicans is just 55, down nine points since last month? That's absurdly low for an incumbent not beset by scandal. Hell, the Republicans just renominated a politically crippled and indicted Goobernor in Kentucky, with 50% of the vote. This is a party that can overlook a lot in their candidates, but something is definitely bugging state GOPers about their man (and one imagines it's Iraq and immigration). And how do we know that 55% approval from your own party is bad? Because Democrats give Ron Wyden a 75% kiss of approval, a positive 15-point difference from the overall rating of 60, compared to just +7 among Republicans for Smith.

Lest you think that party affiliation isn't as accurate as ideology, given the high number of independent voters in Oregon, Smith's numbers among self-described "conservatives" are an even worse 49/42--the first time since May of 2005 that they've dropped below 50%. He doesn't even have a majority of conservatives backing him--and people want to claim he's going to be unbeatable next year? Pfffffft.

The numbers aren't without worry for Democratic challengers, however. As lukewarm as Republicans are, Democrats and independent voters seem more comfortable with Smith than you might expect, both giving approval at around 46-47%. They've bounced around a bit over the last couple years--particularly among independents--but outside the Iraq speech blip, Democrats have rarely been more favorable than they are now. Indies are somewhat less enthused than at other recent times, but still give Smith a fairly strong rating, and in fact gave him a bit of an uptick from last month, going from a dead-even 44/44 to May's 47/40.

The caveat to assessing future affinity is that many Republicans will come back home to Gordo when faced with a desultory option on the Democratic side, and likewise some portion of the Democrats will vote a party ballot despite their collective ambivalence towards him. We've got a loooong way to go. Still, both the 48% approval and downward trendlines are what you'd expect to see from a vulnerable incumbent, and it's entirely fair to label Smith as such. With his expected vote today or tomorrow for a blank check on Bush's war, it will be interesting to see if he regains support from the right and/or loses it on the left. Guess we'll have to wait until June!

Update, 1pm--
Following up on the news, a quote from DPO head Meredith Wood Smith. The rapid response of the party has become excellent over the last couple of months. Keep it up!
“Gordon Smith’s determination to stand with President Bush and against Oregonians’ interests is eroding his support,” DPO Chair Meredith Wood Smith said. “Oregonians will not stand for a representative who votes with President Bush 90 percent of the time. Oregonians will not stand for a representative who earns a 15 percent score from pro-choice advocates and a 14 percent score from environmental advocates.”

*also known as election time