Southern Media Opinion and Research is reported to have results for public dissemination today that show Republican Treas. John Kennedy still leading the filed, but down about 10 points from the last independent poll by The Hayride/Remington Research released a couple of weeks ago, falling from 27 to 16.9 percent in that roughly two-week span. Republican Rep. Charles Boustany inched forward a couple of points to 15.2 percent, supplanting Democrat Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell as runner-up who tumbled by almost half down to 9.2 percent. Democrat lawyer and former lieutenant governor candidate Caroline Fayard also passed up Campbell by essentially maintaining her share of the intended vote at 11.2 percent. Republican Rep. John Fleming got a boost of a couple of points to pull 8.3 percent while Republican 2014 Senate candidate military retiree Rob Maness lost a few to fall to 3.3 percent.
Taking both polls as valid, some interesting dynamics emerge. Fleming may show signs of life, which should worry the others. As the only consistently principled conservative in the contest who has credibility in conservative governance, only he could defeat the likes of Kennedy or Boustany in a runoff by draining their conservative support, leaving them mostly supported by the left of the electorate. That still might not do it, particularly as Kennedy can command such crossover support that no one else could take him down.
Fleming has failed to make many inroads with a key part of his base principally as he became an early strong supporter of eventual Republican presidential nominee businessman Donald Trump, who on the balance sounds conservative themes but in a manner, combined with his liberal views on some matters, that makes principled conservatives wonder about Trump’s level of commitment to conservatism. This has discouraged those conservatives from supporting him and may lead them to support the likes of Kennedy or Boustany – the former viewed as a conservative populist like Trump and the latter a less consistent conservative but less like Trump.
Fleming’s small gains probably do not come at the expense of the poll’s top two but from Maness, whose campaign becomes more and more an exercise in vanity. In 2014, he annoyed conservatives with a quixotic campaign against eventual Sen. Bill Cassidy, alleging Cassidy was not conservative enough despite extensive evidence otherwise, that forced a runoff before Cassidy could win outright. This earned him derogatory comments from Trump.
This time out, besides not able to argue he would be the “true” conservative in the race with Fleming’s presence, Maness also cannot claim the mantle as sole “outsider” when you have in it Fleming who has bucked his party leadership on numerous occasions, Kennedy who successfully has positioned himself as a thorn in the side to political elites at the state level with constantly lecturing about budget responsibility, and that Maness has tried twice for the office shows he is as much a politician as are they – and far less accomplished in the fields of governance and public policy. He offers nothing that any other candidate doesn’t offer more of.
Until recently, possibly as a result of Trump’s rebuke of him, Maness did not explicitly tie himself to Trump. Perhaps as a product of his polling doldrums, he recently has begun to reverse that, attempting to link himself to Trump but by way of conceptualizing the top of the ticket as the anti-Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton, an opponent that must be neutralized at any cost. This shattered whatever illusions principled conservatives had about him, which likely has caused them to continue shuffling away from him, to Fleming’s disproportionate benefit.
The creep upwards of Fleming exacerbates the situation encountered by the only two big movers between polls, both in the direction not to their likings. One possibility the explains both Kennedy’s and Campbell’s significant falls is that they served as placeholders for survey respondents of Republican and Democrat sympathies, respectively, given their name recognition. Now that the election looms fewer than seven weeks away, voters have begun an active parsing process and some have shifted into the undecided camp from the placeholders, which also would explain the counterintuitive result that found nearly twice as many undecided respondents in this poll than in the previous one.
To confirm this, internal data from each about the undecided group would have to be analyzed. Of particular interest would be the composition by partisanship and by race of this category. For example, one theory floated about Campbell’s fall asserts an endorsement by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu of Fayard galvanized black support for her at Campbell’s expense. If in analyzing the internal numbers this shows a drop in black support for Campbell roughly offset by an increase among blacks calling themselves undecided, then the active parsing theory makes more sense than the endorsement theory, even if part of the parsing process includes digesting a Landrieu endorsement. If not, it could be that Campbell’s trying to walk a fine line of grabbing populist white support by trying to distance himself from the nationally-oriented Democrats backing Fayard by such things as refusing to acknowledge support for Clinton – an essential embrace for many blacks to consider voting for him – may cost him a place in the runoff.
Finally, Kennedy’s plunge with Boustany’s incremental increase may provide confirmation of what was previously noted, that each sees the other as the greatest competition and both want to keep the other out of the runoff. This explains the bizarre interchange of the past week between them concerning unconfirmed allegations in a recently published book that Boustany committed a serious sin dealing with prostitutes. Boustany strenuously denied it but then his campaign kept the idea in the public eye by accusing Kennedy of stirring up the issue. Kennedy replied by saying maybe he should keep bringing up unproven but salacious information about an opponent until legal action otherwise disproved it. The exchange battered both candidates’ images but if both had internal polling evidence showing them close in numbers that would explain why Boustany would risk keeping the controversy alive and look whiney in the hopes he could make Kennedy look more like a gossip than a leader, with Kennedy taking the bait in the hopes the controversy would drag down Boustany.
It's unusual to see such large shifts among candidates and undecided potential voters in just 15 or so days’ time, and the internal dynamics of the polls – the much smaller sample size for SMOR, whether they used sampling frames including cell phones, etc. – may explain some or all of the differences. But taken as they come, the results show that both Kennedy and Campbell need to work on sealing the deal to make the runoff, Boustany and Fayard wait in the wings if they cannot, and if Fleming can campaign in a way to consolidate his conservative base he can force his way into the runoff conversation.