POLITICAL SCENE ARCHIVES: Senate Race Pollster Says Current Numbers Could Change (June 30, 1988)

Editor’s Note: This column was first published on June 30, 1988 as part of Wayne Weidie’s syndicated column series, “The Political Scene,” which ran through 43 newspapers in the state of Mississippi and spanned from 1970 to 1990. Political Scene columns will be periodically republished on The Weidie Report.

The latest poll on the U.S. Senate race gives very similar numbers to a poll taken during April. What may puzzle some people is that the Mason-Dixon Opinion and Research Poll released last week was assessed in an Associated Press story as a “whopping” lead for Republican Trent Lott. Lott’s margin in the Mason-Dixon poll was 11 points. The April poll of Mississippi State University political science professor Stephen Shaffer had Lott leading by 10 points over Democrat Wayne Dowdy. Yet the news release from MSU giving Shaffer’s results termed the 10 point margin a “narrow lead” for Lott.

At this stage of the campaign the two polls only confirm what everyone knows. The race will be very close.

Dowdy supporters should be concerned that the polls show their candidate trailing Lott, but there’s no reason to panic. Lott and his staff should be pleased with the result, but the numbers are no basis for overconfidence.

In both the Mason-Dixon poll and the one taken at MSU, Lott has 14 percent of the black vote. If these numbers hold in November, it would represent a major breakthrough for a statewide Republican candidate. Most political observers credit Sen. Thad Cochran with having pulled the highest vote percentage of any Republican from the black community. Estimates have given Cochran as high as 10 percent of the black vote in his 1984 re-election win over William Winter. But even some Cochran staffers think that Cochran only pulled in the 6-8 percent range. If Republicans like Cochran and 1987 gubernatorial candidate Jack Reed drew less than 10 percent of the black vote, Lott being able to pull 14 percent in November is suspect.

Sen. Cochran and Reed have good track records in race relations. If black voters are ever going to cast their ballots for a GOP candidate, they could at least feel comfortable with Republicans like Cochran and Reed. Lott does not have a similar standing or record with the black community. Lott was a big supporter of John Bell Williams in the 1967 race for governor that was a very racist campaign. That contest took place more than 20 years ago, but some who know Lott suspect that his views on race haven’t changed that much.

The poll numbers from the Delta are also a reason the race should be close. The Mason-Dixon poll gave Lott a lead of 47-39 percent in the Second Congressional District. In 1984 President Reagan and Walter Mondale split the Second District 50-50. Most political logic would not give Lott higher numbers in the Delta than Reagan was able to pull during his ’84 re-election bid.

In the Delta, Dowdy should benefit from the strong Republican challenge by Jack Coleman against Democrat Mike Espy, a black. Coleman’s bid is putting the heat on first termer Espy, and by November that should spur a solid turnout of black voters.

Dr. Shaffer says a lot of factors could change the numbers by the general election. For Dowdy to win, Shaffer says the Democrat must focus on party unity and Lott’s voting record. Lott television ads about what he has done for Mississippi are often at odds with actual votes he has made in Washington. Shaffer feels that Dowdy will have to make Lott stand on his record.

On the other side of the fence, Shaffer says that Lott’s TV campaign has thus far been effective in selling voters that the Republican has been doing a good job. He feels Lott must avoid any complacency from the current poll numbers. Shaffer adds that Lott must also avoid appearing to be too Republican and too conservative.

For several years those who anticipated Sen. John Stennis’ retirement expected a real political shootout between Lott and Dowdy to win the vacant seat. Even with the current lead of Lott in the polls, no one really thinks those expectations have changed.

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