|Photo courtesy of Jim Richardson, National Geographic.|
For months, buoyed by public polling, the media has been enthralled by the notion of a three-term Republican Senator from a deeply red Great Plains state losing to a now Independent, multi-millionaire ex-Democratic businessman. The Huffington Post Pollster average pegged Senator Pat Roberts at 39.8% in the average of polls at the beginning of this week, while his Independent opponent sat at a healthy 46.6%.
Now, with the inclusion of Wednesday's Fox News poll showing Pat Roberts ahead by five, and a CNN poll showing him up one point, the Kansas Senate race is tied in the Pollster average, and gives Roberts a 50/50 shot of holding on to his seat - quite the improvement from last week.
Why is Roberts seemingly closing so well, you might ask? Well, for the most part, his base appears to be returning home, after a weeks-long flirtation with Greg Orman. The two most recent polls finding Roberts ahead of Orman overall also found him performing better among Republican voters than in previous surveys. Orman's Republican support, once in the low-30 percent range, has been cut in half. Pat Roberts GOP support, once stuck in the 50 and 60 percent range, has swollen to over 70% (hitting a highwater mark of 84% in the new CNN poll).
But if Roberts is consolidating the Republican vote in a state with a Cook partisan voting index of R+12, a state where the Republican party identification advantage over Democrats hasn't dropped below R+19 in any exit poll since 1992, how is he still barely scraping by Orman?
The answer is two-fold: 1. Though Roberts has made significant inroads with Republican voters, he's not quite performing at the level of a typical Republican running statewide in Kansas. And 2. Orman's advantage among Independent voters is larger than any Republican or Democrat to run for statewide office in Kansas since at least 1992 (according to available exit polling).
In examining number 1 above, consider the table below, which documents the voting patterns of Republicans and Independents in every Kansas Presidential, Senate, or Governor race since 1992 (at least where exit polling was publicly available).
The only time the Republican candidate for President, Governor, or Senator has ever won less than 80% of the vote in Kansas was in 1992, when Ross Perot's historic third party candidacy for the Presidency peeled off one in four Republican voters. President Bush walked away with only 64% of his own base. Bush won the state regardless, given the unique competitiveness of Perot (he won 27% in Kansas, compared to 19% nationwide).
Pat Roberts has won over 75% of Republican voters in only ONE of TEN polls taken that feature just Roberts and Orman, and leave off one-time candidate Chad Taylor, who dropped out of the race on September 3. Roberts attracts only 73% of Republicans in the most recent survey, conducted by Fox News. If the 2014 Senate race is anything like the large majority of Kansas races for senate, president, or governor over the last 20+ years, you would expect Roberts to win 85% of the Republican vote, or better. If he did, he would have led in every head-to-head survey between he and Orman taken since August.
Now, back to number 2 mentioned five paragraphs above. Independent Greg Orman is doing shockingly well among...who else, but self-described Independents. He's winning, on average, 54% of their vote. The incumbent lags far behind at an average of 25%. That roughly 30% advantage is larger than most candidates for statewide office in Kansas over the last two decades. And it's the primary reason that even though Pat Roberts is increasing his share of the Republican vote, he mostly lags behind Orman, or leads slightly at best.
The most recent poll, as noted in the first table above, would suggest that Roberts is slowly starting to chip away at Orman's massive lead with Independent voters. But outside of Fox News, Orman's lead among Independents is large enough to require that Roberts win a near unanimous level of support among his own party, regardless of the Republican's massive partisan identification advantage.
In the end, given the Republican dominance in Kansas, Roberts will likely defeat Orman by winning at least 85% of Republican voters, even if he loses Independents by up to 30%. The only problem for Roberts is that he has yet to hit that level of support from his party. Obviously, the more inroads he can make with Independents, the more he can afford to lose Republicans to Orman. But if polling is any indication, it appears as though Roberts is headed for a historic loss among Independent voters. If Roberts intends to cede over 15% of the Republican vote to his Independent challenger, he better hope Independents defy the pollsters.