Senator Lee Rebounds

Compared to one year ago, our October 2014 UVP shows a substantial change in voters’ views about the senator. Overall, favorability toward Senator Lee has now nearly returned to its pre-shutdown levels.

These are heady days for Senate Republicans.  With a wave of electoral victories across the country, they have taken control from the Democrats, meaning that Republicans like Orrin Hatch will be assuming important and powerful positions, such as chair of the Senate Finance Committee.  When it comes to governing choices, the relationship between more establishment Republicans like Senator Hatch or Mitch McConnell, on the one hand, and reform conservatives like Ted Cruz or Utah’s own Mike Lee, on the other, will also bear close observation. And, of course, it remains to be seen how the public responds to Republican rule of both houses of Congress. As we prepare for Republican takeover of the Senate, how do Utahns view the state’s junior senator?

Last year, we reported a significant decline in Senator Mike Lee’s favorability ratings after the controversial and divisive government shutdown.  Prior to the shutdown, views about Senator Lee were, on balance, positive, though not overwhelmingly so.  About 50% of Utah voters viewed Senator Lee favorably, and a little over 40% viewed him unfavorably (the remaining 10% said they had no opinion one way or the other).  After the shutdown, those numbers reversed, and Senator Lee’s unfavorables outpaced his favorables, 52% to 40% — a remarkably low evaluation for a Utah politician.  (Of the state’s political figures we asked our respondents to evaluate over the past 4 years, only John Swallow’s numbers have been worse.)

In September, analysts at Utah Policy observed a rebound in Senator Lee’s approval ratings, arguing that his renewed support among Utah voters was driven primarily by Republicans rallying behind him.  CSED’s Utah Voter Poll is uniquely positioned to dig deeper into this question and to show how things have changed over the last year, as we asked the exact same question about favorability toward Lee multiple times.  Moreover, we asked the same question to the same survey population — our sample of Utah voters who had taken part in a previous election in the state.  Because both question wording and the survey population could affect the results, holding both of these features constant allows for the best test of how attitudes toward Senator Lee have changed since 2013.

And what do our results reveal?  Potentially good news for Senator Lee.  Compared to one year ago, our October 2014 UVP shows a substantial change in voters’ views about the senator. Overall, favorability toward Senator Lee has now nearly returned to its pre-shutdown levels. Figure 1 presents the percentage of voters falling into each favorability category in June 2013 (prior to the shutdown), October 2013 (just after the shutdown began), and finally in October 2014.  It is easy to see the dramatic spike in the percentage of voters who expressed “very unfavorable” views of Senator Lee in October 2013 — the change from 27% in June to 40% in October represents a 13 percentage-point increase in highly negative opinions.  But the October 2014 results show that those negative sentiments have now died down considerably, with 31% of voters reporting “very unfavorable” views.

Lee Favorability_All

Figure 1: Favorability toward Senator Lee

These results represent an improvement for Senator Lee, though it is also true that our October 2014 panelists had comparatively less negative responses to most other politicians we asked about.  For example, only 9% of respondents had “very unfavorable” views of Governor Herbert and only 10% of respondents had a similar reaction to Jim Matheson.  The closest numbers to Senator Lee’s are judgments about Senator Hatch, whom a little more than 26% of respondents judged very unfavorably.

The trends since 2013 for Senator Lee can be seen more clearly in Table 1, where we collapse the “very unfavorable” and “somewhat unfavorable” results together and do the same for “very” or “somewhat” favorable reactions.  (The remaining percentage said they had no opinion.)  As the table shows, the dramatic reversal in public opinion from June to October persisted through at least March of this year.  In October, however, the numbers reverted to nearly their pre-shutdown levels — certainly not anywhere close to the high levels of favorability of the state’s most popular politicians, but at least more favorable than unfavorable.

Table 1: Favorability Over Time
Very or Somewhat
Very or Somewhat
June 2013 40% 50%
October 2013 52% 40%
November 2013 56% 40%
January 2014 53% 41%
March 2014 51% 43%
October 2014 44% 50%

Figure 2 presents this same information in a slightly different form.  The bars in the figure indicate the difference in public opinion from the June 2013 baseline (40% unfavorable and 50% favorable).  Beginning in October, unfavorable reactions spiked dramatically upward, while favorable opinion moved solidly in the opposite direction — not a trend any politician would prefer. Negativity toward Senator Lee reached its apex in November of 2013, when unfavorable reactions were 16 percentage points higher than the June numbers.  What’s more, less than favorable opinion persisted well into 2014, when our March UVP still found Lee upside down in favorability, with unfavorables 11 points higher than in June of 2013 and favorables 7 points lower.  By October, though, favorables had recovered all of their post-shutdown losses.

Change in Lee Favorability over Time

Figure 2: Change from June 2013 Baseline

What accounts for Senator Lee’s recovery in Utah public opinion?  Similar to the Utah Policy findings, our analysis points to significant gains among his co-partisans.  Figure 3 shows the change in favorability toward Senator Lee between October 2013 and October 2014 by levels of partisan identification (voters’ self-reported sense of attachment to the political parties).  In other words, we’re looking at how opinion has changed among different types of voters in the one year since the government shutdown.  As the figure makes clear, opinion among Democrats has not changed at all — they were highly negative in October of 2013, and they remain so today.  Any gains in favorability, then, can be entirely traced to independents and Republicans.  More favorable opinion is especially pronounced among so-called “weak Republicans” — those who consider themselves Republicans but do not identify as the strongest partisans.  As can be seen in the figure, favorable views of Lee among this group have increased by almost 25 percentage points since October 2013. A year ago, only 46% of weak Republicans had a favorable opinion of Lee (against 40% who had an unfavorable opinion).  In October of 2014, fully 70% of weak Republicans felt favorably toward him (and only 22% felt unfavorably).  Independents, independents who lean in a Republican direction, and strong Republicans also expressed increased favorability.

Figure 3: Change in Lee Favorability from October 2013 by Party ID

Figure 3: Change in Lee Favorability from October 2013 by Party ID

Together, these increases have had a substantial effect on Senator Lee’s overall numbers in the state, where most voters are, of course, Republican.  While we do see some improvement among independents, Senator Lee’s rebound can primarily be traced to his fellow Republicans.  Many of his co-partisans were unwilling to express positive views about him in the aftermath of the government shutdown, but have now returned to their previously positive assessments.

These patterns have another important implication: they mean that views of Senator Lee are highly polarized by partisanship.  Figure 4 shows the proportion of Utah voters in October 2014 who have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Senator Lee, again broken down by their self-reported party identification.  As can be seen in the figure, extraordinarily high percentages of Democrats have unfavorable views of Senator Lee, and almost no Democrats — whether strong partisans, weak partisans, or independents who lean toward the Democrats — have positive views of him.

Figure 4: Proportion of Voters Expressing Favorable (or Unfavorable) Views of Senator Lee

Figure 4: Proportion of Voters Expressing Favorable (or Unfavorable) Views of Senator Lee

In many ways, this should not be surprising. Decades of political science research have shown, over and over again, the ways in which party allegiances serve as a perceptual screen through which voters evaluate the candidates.  In the eyes of voters, not all candidates are evaluated equally: voters tend to be much harder on candidates who do not share their partisan attachments and much more forgiving of those who do.  Given this research, we should expect Democrats to have substantially less positive reactions to a conservative Republican candidate.  (The same is true for how Republicans typically respond to Democratic candidates.)  Even among independents, though, Senator Lee’s unfavorables outpace his favorables by 20 percentage points, 54% to 34%.  If, as is likely, these patterns hold up, Senator Lee can expect exceptionally low levels of support from the state’s Democrats and only tepid support from independents when he runs for re-election in 2016.

The good news for Senator Lee is that his core supporters — his fellow Republicans — have returned to the fold and are now much more positive than negative about him. Again, partisanship serves as a screen or lens through which voters evaluate different candidates, so it is not surprising that Republicans are more inclined to see the positive in Lee. Their negative reactions to him after the shutdown were the exception, not the rule (and even then, they were never as negative as independents and Democrats).  In October of this year, about twice as many Republicans reported a favorable view than an unfavorable view of Lee.  Combining strong, weak, and “leaning” Republicans, Senator Lee enjoys a 64/32 favorable to unfavorable rating — not quite the 71/22 ratio he had in June 2013, but perhaps well on his way back to those numbers.

If he is to be re-elected, such support among his base will be key.  Even with the rebound in opinion toward him, his favorables among Republicans generally still lag about 10 points behind those of more popular Republicans like Governor Herbert. (Republicans may be more favorable to Lee than Democrats, but this does not mean that Republicans evaluate all Republican candidates equally.)  Overall, Lee’s favorables are now about on par with Senator Hatch’s, with one important exception: the strongest Republicans are much more likely to be “very favorable” toward Senator Lee (48%) than Senator Hatch (30%).  In other words, Lee’s most intense support is highly concentrated among those with the strongest allegiances to the Republican party.  In addition, though not surprisingly, respondents to our survey who consider themselves active supporters of the Tea Party are even more likely to say they have “very favorable” opinions toward him (73%).

The support from Tea Partiers and strong Republicans is crucial for Senator Lee if he wants to fend off potential Republican challengers in a Republican primary or convention in 2016.  Last year, we wrote that Lee was vulnerable to challenge.  He appears less so now, though it remains to be seen whether the currently positive views of his fellow partisans would hold up under criticism from a fellow Republican and whether a potential challenger could make use of the state’s new rules about primary contests to avoid a convention, where the strongest partisans — the core of Lee’s support — are highly represented.  On that score, the dramatic improvement in the opinions of “weak” Republicans may be an especially important development for Lee, though a primary still looms as a relatively more risky setting for him than a convention vote.

Turning from Republicans to the full electorate, Senator Lee clearly has work to do to convince more independents to join his cause, and anything more than minscule levels of Democratic support is likely  a lost cause.  Even in a heavily Republican state like Utah, that opens the door for a quality challenger like Jim Matheson, who has made his career crafting winning coalitions of Democrats, independents, and moderate Republicans.  In fact, on election night, the Utah Colleges Exit Poll asked a random statewide sample of voters their preferences in a hypothetical 2016 Senate race between Jim Matheson and Mike Lee.  These results should be taken with a grain of salt — they are merely hypothetical — but they show an extremely tight contest: 44.5% of respondents said they preferred Lee, 41.5% said they preferred Matheson, and 14% were undecided.  Such a close result is notable, given that the midterm electorate is likely to have a relatively high percentage of strong Republicans, the bulwark of Lee’s support.  Things may be even closer with a presidential electorate that is likely to be much larger, more diverse, and relatively more moderate.  Of course, the 2014 contests are barely in the rearview mirror and Jim Matheson has not declared his intention to run in 2016, but a competitive statewide Senate race may already have political junkies salivating.  In the meantime, Senator Lee’s rebounding favorability in the court of public opinion will, no doubt, be something for challengers both inside and outside his party to consider.

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