Lee has overwhelming support from the quarter of the population that doesn’t reject the Tea Party. But the three-quarters of Utahns who do not identify with the Tea Party come to the exact opposite conclusion.
Senator Mike Lee has received considerable attention nationally, within Utah, and even among his fellow U.S. Senators for his role with Senator Ted Cruz in executing a strategy to defund the Affordable Care Act (widely known as Obamacare). The tension continues to rise with the government shutdown and the possibility that this will lead to a failure to raise the debt ceiling.
So what do Utahns think about all of this? Who views Senator Lee’s work favorably or unfavorably? And how does this all compare with the recent past? The Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU just completed another Utah Voter Poll that allows us to answer these and other questions.
We asked respondents to choose between whether “Senator Mike Lee should stand by his principles, even when the result is a government shutdown” or “Senator Mike Lee should be more willing to compromise, even if that means passing a budget with funding for the Affordable Care Act.”
First of all, 57% of Utahns overall would like Senator Lee to be “more willing to compromise” versus 43% who prefer that he “stand by his principles.” That result is not possible in Republican-dominated Utah without at least some Republicans preferring compromise. In fact, 38% of all self-identified Republicans prefer that Lee compromise compared to 99% of all Democrats. Independents side heavily with compromise at 65%.
A look at this question by active support for the Tea Party support yields absolutely stunning conclusions. Among the 13% of respondents who identify as active Tea Party supporters, 90% say that Lee should stick to his principles and not compromise. Among those who say they are not active supporters (74% of the sample), 73% say he should compromise.
The 13% who answer “Don’t Know” to the Tea Party question are also interesting. Of this group, 80% say stick to his principles, 20% say compromise. Those answering “Don’t Know” appear to be Tea Partiers hiding in the “Don’t Know” response option.
All told, then, Lee has overwhelming support from the quarter of the population that doesn’t reject the Tea Party. But the three-quarters of Utahns who do not identify with the Tea Party come to the exact opposite conclusion.
But here’s the further complication: among those who identify as Republicans but do not support the Tea Party, the split is 51/49 in favor of compromise. Recall, that among all Republicans (Tea Party supporters or not), support for “standing by his principles” is very strong — 62/38.
So, how vulnerable is Lee because of his tactics on Obamacare and the shutdown? On this issue he has near total support from the Tea Party and about half of the non-Tea Party affiliated Republicans. He has generated some opposition within his own party because of his actions, but on balance and buoyed by the overwhelming support for Tea Partiers, his tactics in the budget fight still enjoy the support of most Republicans.
That said, Lee’s stance has carried over into his favorability ratings. Compared to our June 2013 Utah Voter Poll, Senator Lee’s favorability fortunes have reversed course. In October the favorability to unfavorability ratio is 40/51 while back in June 2013 it was 50/41. More Utah voters now have an unfavorable impression of him.
To put Lee’s current favorability numbers in the proper context, we’ve put them side by side with Jim Matheson’s current numbers, after all Matheson’s name always comes up in discussions of statewide elections. Just for fun, we’ve thrown in some favorability numbers for Senator Bob Bennett from the March 2010 Utah Voter Poll. Matheson’s favorable to unfavorable ratio is 58/36, not great compared to Governor Herbert who is at 71/25 (not shown in the figure), but not bad for a Democrat amidst a sea of Republicans. Notably, Lee is also now clearly behind the numbers of former Senator Bennett from our March 2010 Utah Voter Poll.
When you break the numbers down into “very” and “somewhat” favorable ratings, you see that Senator Lee is a polarizing figure. His highest ratings are for “very unfavorable” (40%) followed by “very favorable” 26%. Lee’s very favorable numbers are also virtually unchanged from June. The change is from somewhat favorable to very unfavorable. Moderate Republicans who once gave Lee a lukewarm thumbs up are now giving him a strong thumbs down. Matheson and Bennett, in contrast, are highest on the middle “somewhat” categories.
So how is Senator Lee doing among members of his own party? Back in June he was a rock star with a 71/22 favorable to unfavorable rating. That’s now fallen off quite a bit, but it’s still at a respectable 57/33. Is Senator Lee vulnerable to a challenge from the moderate wing of the Republican Party? Maybe. Check out former Senator Bennett’s numbers among Republicans in March 2010. At 57/38 they look a lot like Lee’s do now. If Lee draws a strong Republican challenger, it would be difficult to predict the outcome right now. A lot would depend on who shows up to the caucus meetings and the composition of the delegates. If the Count My Vote initiative is successful, all bets are off.
A strong general election challenger presents a real danger spot for Senator Lee. Notice Representative Matheson’s favorability/unfavorability ratio among Republicans statewide are is 52/40. Matheson doesn’t need a majority of Republican votes to win a statewide election, he just needs between a quarter and a third. That’s been his recipe for success for the last decade plus in his House elections. That appears very doable right now.
When the Republican only numbers are examined in more detail, once again Senator Lee’s “very favorable” numbers hold pretty constant from June to October. The voters that always really like him haven’t changed their minds much and his current stance may simply reinforce those views, but he has driven away a group of voters that he will badly want back if he ever faces a strong challenger. The difficulty for Democrats is finding a challenger with the capacity to win statewide who is willing to run. The short list is indeed very short.
Altogether, these results are indicative of the larger difficulty within the Republican Party. While Senator Lee enjoys intense support from a vocal minority and seems to be representing their perspective very well, he does so at his own peril. The majority of Utah voters are looking for him to compromise and if he fails to do so, he could face electoral consequences.
Click here to download a topline report that includes the full survey questionnaire, frequencies for each question, a detailed methodological report (including details about the sampling as well as response rates and cooperation rates) and information about the margin of sampling error.