Sen. Lindsey Graham’s Challenge

By Jim Ellis

Is incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in re-election trouble?

Sept. 18, 2020 — Quinnipiac University surveyed the South Carolina political situation as part of their three-state polling series, which again produces some eyebrow-raising data. The results help identify why Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from a Republican state, finds himself languishing in a competitive contest.

The poll (Sept. 10-14; 969 likely South Carolina voters, live interview conducted by the RDD firm for Quinnipiac) tested both the presidential and Senate campaigns. President Trump leads former vice president Joe Biden 51-45 percent in a ballot test that seems to be an under-count when looking at the survey’s supporting numbers. Sen. Graham, however, falls into a tie with opponent Jaime Harrison, at 48-48 percent, in a result that the underlying responses do seem to support.

President Trump’s six-point lead appears low because he tops Biden on virtually every personal and issue question. The Trump favorability index is 51:45 percent positive to negative, but the Biden ratio is much worse at 43:50 percent. The generic Republican-Democrat number falls 52-44 percent in favor of the GOP label.

Despite poor coronavirus management numbers for the president nationally, this South Carolina survey returns a 49:48 percent approval number on his handling of the issue. Furthermore, the respondents, in a 50-46 percent break, believe President Trump would do a better job handling coronavirus in the future than Biden. Not a particularly strong performance in this issue area, but better for the President than in almost any other place.

Trump also scores better in his handling of the economy (55-40 percent), the military (54-42 percent), and “keeping your family safe” (52-43 percent). Biden is favored, and only barely, 48-46 percent, on just one issue: racial equality.

Most importantly, the issue matrix sets up perfectly for Trump. The top two issues, according to these respondents, are the ones upon which the president is basing his campaign, law and order (23 percent) and bringing back the economy (22 percent). The Biden key issues rate rather poorly: coronavirus (12 percent), racial equality (12 percent), and healthcare (10 percent).

All of these underlying numbers suggest the Trump ballot test margin should be stronger than six points, which could be a signal that there is a “shy Trump voter factor” even in what is typically a safe Republican state. The “shy Trump voter” is the phrase now used to describe the individual who only secretly favors the president.

The Graham numbers suggest something different. It is clear that the senator’s image must improve before the home state electorate, and his campaign has not clearly defined his opponent — Harrison, the former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party.

The Q-Poll is not the only data source that shows a tight race. In fact, all of the polls conducted here have reached a similar conclusion. A total of six South Carolina polls have been released since mid-July. There is no survey that finds Harrison leading, but the July Q-Poll also found an even tally, while the four others from a quartet of pollsters (brilliant corners Research & Strategies; ALG Research; Morning Consult; and Public Policy Polling), have delivered Graham margins of just plus-2, plus-4, plus-1, and plus-3 points, respectively.

Getting to the key underlying factors, Sen. Graham’s favorability index is only 44:49 percent positive to negative, a net 11 percentage points worse than President Trump’s ratio. More damaging is that on the question of whether Sen. Graham is perceived as being honest, only 40 percent said they believe he is, but a disturbing 49 percent say he is not.

Typically, Republicans fare poorly on the question as to whether the subject “cares about average people.” In this instance, Sen. Graham scores a 45:48 percent ratio, which isn’t a particularly bad score for a Republican incumbent, but underwater, nonetheless.

Jaime Harrison has raised over $30 million for this race, a huge sum for a seven-congressional district state. And, his spending is paying dividends. According to his Q-Poll favorability index, Harrison records a 55:25 percent ratio. This is indicative not only of the Harrison campaign’s ability to tell the candidate’s story but is evidence that the Graham campaign has yet to create a negative image of the opponent.

The next six weeks will be interesting in this Senate race. Democrats will obviously keep up the pressure, and the Graham campaign will have to step up its presence and launch an offensive. With over $30 million of his own raised for the election cycle, Sen. Graham’s operation certainly has the resources to compete.

The underlying numbers tell us that the Senate situation, while trending badly, is repairable for Sen. Graham and the GOP, but it is also clear they will have to make serious campaign adjustments in order to pull away before Election Day.

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