Sam R. Hall: Senate Race Too Close to Call

Sam R. Hall:Senate race too close to call: Clarion Ledger

Here’s how I see it: Incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran has the slightest lead over GOP primary challenger Chris McDaniel, but the state senator from Ellisville has momentum that could send Mississippi’s senior senator into retirement.

Two independent polls released Friday show similar findings:

• The race is tight, with neither candidate having a discernible lead.

• Cochran is under 50 percent, and that’s bad news for an incumbent.

• McDaniel has upward momentum, even though the nursing home photo scandal has slowed it somewhat.

Harper Polling conducted the first survey released. Harper is a Republican firm that has done polling on behalf of the National Republican Senatorial Committee earlier in the election. Its survey showed Cochran leading 45 to 40 percent, with 15 percent of likely GOP primary voters undecided. The margin of error, however, is 4 points, which means Cochran’s lead could be as small as 1 percentage point (or as large as 9 percentage points). The major problem with this poll is that it skews a bit older. Some have criticized it for not including enough respondents from the Hattiesburg market — McDaniel’s home territory — but that doesn’t seem to be as big of an issue. Either way, the poll probably favors Cochran slightly, which makes me think the margin is tighter than the results show.

Chism Strategies, a Democratic polling firm, conducted the second survey. Brad Chism bases his operation out of Mississippi, but he has done extensive work across the country. While he says he is currently not working for any candidate, he did serve in 2008 and 2010 as a consultant to former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers — the likely Democratic opponent of the GOP primary winner. Chism’s poll has McDaniel ahead 46.4 to 44.3 percent with a margin of error of 3.4 percent. This is a statistical dead heat; however, the poll is heavily weighted toward voters age 66 or older, which is a clear advantage toward Cochran.

The rub with these polls — with any poll — is that despite surveying only likely voters, it is impossible to predict what will drive higher turnout among irregular and first-time voters or what will cause large chunks of likely voters to stay home. In my opinion, the nursing home scandal could be key.

In discussing the impact of the scandal surrounding a 28-year-old blogger and McDaniel supporter sneaking into a nursing home and taking photographs of Cochran’s bedridden wife, my opinion has been this: It seems that the scandal has ignited McDaniel’s base, which could really drive turnout in his favor.

That may sound counter-intuitive, but follow me for a second.

McDaniel’s base seems genuinely angry because it sincerely believes the Cochran camp sandbagged McDaniel by waiting three weeks to tell authorities. It also thinks Cochran using the scandal in TV ads against McDaniel — who has not been implicated — is as distasteful as someone sneaking and taking photos of Rose Cochran.

On the other hand, Cochran’s base does not seem as excited about the race. Those who support Cochran think he’s done a good job and believe he should keep doing it, and they’ve never had to worry about whether or not “Thad” would win. He always wins. So while both polls show that the scandal has hurt McDaniel’s momentum, it’s done little to move undecideds to Cochran.

Ironically, neither candidate has a statewide network designed to push voters to the polls. You wouldn’t expect it from McDaniel, only a state senator. However, that Cochran doesn’t have one shows his vulnerability. He will rely on the networks of others, in particular Gov. Phil Bryant and U.S. Reps. Alan Nunnelee, Gregg Harper and — to an extent — Steven Palazzo. (The latter has a credible primary threat in Gene Taylor, so his focus must remain on his race.) Bryant and Harper have two of the best networks in the state, and that should bode well for Cochran — even though a number of key Bryant supporters are working for McDaniel.

As for McDaniel, he has cobbled together a network of tea party activists and younger elected officials across the state. While he has excitement and momentum, McDaniel lacks a unified get-out-the-vote apparatus and doesn’t have the benefit of “borrowing” one from supporters. His hard-core supporters will brave rain, sleet, snow and apocalyptic destruction to vote for McDaniel, but will they bring enough friends with them to put him over the top?