Political experts say U.S. Senate, 9th District races too close to call

  • Nov. 6, 2016

Editor's note: This story from The Bloomington Herald-Times is being published here as a courtesy for readers of IU in the News.

By Megan Banta

More than one race on Tuesday's ballot is likely to go down to the wire, political experts said this week.

Paul Helmke, a professor of practice at Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs, called the U.S. Senate race a "nail-biter."

"Everything I'm hearing and seeing is that it's basically a toss-up," Helmke said. "It's a tough one to call."

Nearly every pundit has the race rated as a toss-up, from Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball to Rothenberg & Gonzales to Cook Political Report, though, a statistics-driven blog about politics and other topics, on Friday shifted odds that previously had been heavily in Bayh's favor to narrowly in Young's favor.

Recent polls have gone back and forth, but the general trend has shown Republican U.S. Rep. Todd Young closing a gap between himself and Democrat Evan Bayh, who came out of political retirement in July to replace Baron Hill on the ballot, while Libertarian Lucy Brenton trails far behind and some voters remain undecided.

Bayh, who started with a lead, has taken hit after hit as outside money has poured in to fund ads pointing to residency questions and his actions in his final year of the U.S. Senate, after which he went to serve on boards for banks and work for a lobbying firm.

Early polls showed Bayh with a double-digit lead, but three recent polls show a much slimmer gap between the two major-party candidates.

Poll results released last week by Ball State University and WISH-TV show Bayh with a nearly 6 percent lead, pulling 49.1 percent support to Young's 43.4 percent, a gap wider than the 4.8 percent margin of error. Another 0.4 percent of 544 likely voters surveyed between Oct. 10 and 16 by Princeton Survey Research Associates said they would support another candidate, while 1.3 percent said they supported no one or would not vote, and another 5.9 percent were not sure or refused to answer.

Numbers shifted toward Young's favor in a poll released Monday by Monmouth University, which showed the two tied at 45 percent, with 4 percent supporting Brenton and 5 percent undecided, based on a phone survey conducted from Oct. 27 to 30 of 402 residents likely to vote in the election. That poll had a margin of error of 4.9 percent.

A tie then became a lead for Young in a poll released Friday by WTHR and Howey Politics Indiana.

That poll, conducted between Tuesday and Thursday via phone survey of 600 likely voters, was conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, a Virginia-based firm that Young uses for internal polling, showed Young up 46 percent to Bayh's 41 percent, just outside a 4 percent margin of error, with 6 percent backing Brenton and 5 percent undecided.

Helmke, who ran against Bayh for the Senate in 1998, said there are two major things working against the Democrat: The sheer amount of money pouring into the race, and the fact that he didn't run in the primary election, instead having been slated in July to replace former congressman Baron Hill on the ticket.

U.S. Sen. Dan Coats faced similar issues with having been out of state when he ran in 2010, but he dealt with those during the primary, he said.

"Not running in a primary means this is still something fresh and relevant to people," Helmke said. "Every few days, there's something new coming out about Evan that hurts."

Andy Downs, who heads the Mike Downs Center on Indiana Politics at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne, agreed, but added the narrowing of the race was inevitable.

"Anyone who thought that Evan Bayh was going to maintain a double-digit lead from the beginning through Election Day, I don’t think was looking at the campaign," Downs said. "Young is a viable candidate who is a conservative by just about every measure you could ever want."

Downs said Young has indicated he's willing to work with anyone to get things done, which works in a state like Indiana.

And he said Bayh, who hadn't been on a ticket in 12 years, had to adjust to campaigning in a post Citizens United world and ramp up a grassroots effort rather than just dominating the airwaves.

But he said that while it's a close race, Bayh probably still maintains his initial advantage, if only barely.

"If pushed, I would probably say that Bayh is still more likely to win, but I will also say it’s only Wednesday," Downs said last week. "A good, final push by either candidate could be what gets you over the top."

9th District showdown

Another race on which both Helmke and Downs were hesitant to make a call was in the state's 9th Congressional District.

Downs said the race is "probably too close to call," and Helmke called it a "real toss-up" between Democrat Shelli Yoder and Republican Trey Hollingsworth.

Polls and pundits seem to indicate the same.

While the district tends to favor Republicans and traditionally is rated "safe" for the GOP, pundits have ranked it as more competitive, although still favoring Hollingsworth.

And polls have shown the race within two points or less.

A poll from Normington, Pett and Associates conducted on Oct. 12 and 13 showed Hollingsworth up by 2 points, 40 percent to Yoder's 38 percent, while 4 percent expressed support for Libertarian Russell Brooksbank and 18 percent were undecided.

Another revelation from that poll: There was only a 2-point difference between Hollingsworth's favorable and unfavorable ratings, while Yoder had a 13-point advantage between favorability and unfavorability.

An internal poll from Yoder's campaign conducted less than a week later found the two candidates tied at 43 percent, with 5 percent supporting Brooksbank. That poll, though, showed Hollingsworth with 8 percent more people indicating a negative image of the Republican and Yoder emerging with a 14-point more positive image than negative.

The Friday WTHR/HPI poll included 310 likely voters in the 9th District and showed 44 percent supporting Hollingsworth and 42 percent backing Yoder, a 2-point difference that's well within the margin of error.

Both candidates have been in high gear in recent weeks, holding news conferences and making appearances with national leadership from their respective parties, with millions of dollars of outside money flowing in for advertisements.

Helmke and Downs both said Hollingsworth has a likely lead because of the district's demographics, but that he faces some disadvantages as well.

The prime disadvantage is the "Tennessee Trey" moniker that was coined during the highly contested Republican primary and that Democrats have hammered home, especially following stories that further focus on residency issues.

Downs said while people don't care as much about the outside money, the fact that Hollingsworth moved into the state just last year -- though it's contested whether it was during the summer or the fall -- does catch Hoosiers' attention.

"The fact is, it’s broadly known he moved into the state with the intention of running in that district," Downs said. He said while Hollingsworth has the good reason of moving closer to his wife's family, he commented at one point that if he wasn't successful in the 9th, another district would do.

Helmke said with those issues continuing, it's reasonable to wonder how many Republicans might turn away.

"They might see these extra stories and say, 'Let him go down,'" he said. Republicans might prefer for Yoder to win so they can come back with a different candidate in two years.

Downs agreed, saying the Republican also faces the challenge of an opponent who has been on the ballot -- in 2012, Yoder ran against Young, who currently represents the 9th and is leaving it for his Senate run.

Hollingsworth, Downs said, "set himself up to be a possible target for being defeated, and he has the great misfortune of running against someone who has run before." On the other hand, Yoder "has a biography that works pretty well in the state."

Downs and Helmke said Yoder has overcome her major obstacle: fundraising.

Yoder's challenge all along, Helmke said, was whether she could get enough money, and she's been able to boast high numbers, largely thanks to national attention through the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Emily's List.

That led both Downs and Helmke to say Yoder has a chance, though they acknowledged it would be an upset.

Governor's race

Where a Democrat does have a clear shot, though, is in the governor's race, both experts said.

"John Gregg has really been the breakout candidate of the fall season," Helmke said. "That's been one of the real surprises."

Helmke said the challenge for Republican Eric Holcomb is similar to that of Bayh: He didn't run in the primary.

Because he didn't start campaigning until the summer, he doesn't have the name recognition of Gregg, the Democratic candidate who also ran in 2012, Helmke said.

He added that's particularly true because of the focus on other races.

"And Hoosiers do split their tickets," he said, pointing to Democrat Glenda Ritz's 2012 victory for the state schools superintendent spot and President Barack Obama turning the state blue in 2008.

Undecided voters could be the key. The most recent WTHR/Howey Politics Indiana Poll shows the gubernatorial race "an absolute dead heat" at 42 percent for each candidate, with 11 percent still undecided.

Downs said a moment of joviality between Gregg and Holcomb during the third debate seems to point to the Republican nominee knowing and accepting the possibility of losing.

Regardless of the results, Helmke said, many simply are looking forward to Wednesday.

"Most people I talk to are just sick of it and just want it to be over as soon as it can," he said.