There is consensus building that the Kentucky race is leaning Democratic or, if you look around Election Twitter, that Governor Andy Beshear is practically a shoo-in for re-election. Opposing forces are at work inside the state that position it to be the closest gubernatorial race in November. Unfortunately, state polling hasn’t helped to clarify this and should be taken with a grain of salt so large you risk hypernatremia.
Why? Well, let’s wind the clock a bit.
How We Got Here
The Beshears have quite the political history in the Bluegrass State. Steve Beshear served in the Kentucky statehouse from 1974 until his election as the state’s Attorney General in 1979, then it’s Lieutenant Governor from 1983 until 1987. Twenty years later, he would unseat incumbent Republican Governor Ernie Fletcher in a 59-41% rout and would win re-election by an even larger margin in 2011.
His successor to the office was Republican Matt Bevin, who was considered an underdog mainly due to a polling and financial deficit to Democratic candidate Jack Conway. During that same election that saw Bevin win by almost 91,000 votes, Andy Beshear won a very close race to become the state’s Attorney General, defeating Republican candidate Whitney Westerfield by just over 2,000 votes.
Governor Bevin’s term saw fights with his fellow Republicans and a general souring of his favorability. When Andy decided to challenge him, he wound up defeating the incumbent- as his father had twelve years earlier- but by a considerably smaller margin: about 5,000 votes. Beshear’s defeat of Bevin was the only win statewide for the Democrats in 2019: every other election resulted in Republican victories, including his former office, where Republican Daniel Cameron would easily defeat Democrat Greg Stumbo by over fifteen points. Indeed, Cameron earned over a hundred thousand more votes in his contest than either Bevin or Beshear in theirs. Both Beshear and Cameron would enjoy national attention over the last four years: Beshear as often the most popular Democratic Governor in the nation, and Cameron elevated as a potentially national Republican figure, giving a speech at the 2020 RNC.
On paper, Andy Beshear is formidable: his favorability ranks high in national surveys, with Morning Consult finding him at 64/32 in their July release, enviable for any Democrat in a state that has moved as much to the right as it has. He went up early, and hard, with TV ads for the general election campaign: Beshear’s campaign had outspent Cameron’s $7.6 million to just $780,000 through mid-September, and per ad tracking firm Medium Buying, pro-Beshear ad spending exceeded its counterpart by $9 million through the same period. While a good portion of that money has been spent to highlight Daniel Cameron’s position on abortion, he’s still running as Democrat in an effectively Republican state, so he recently launched a TV spot featuring a Trump supporter endorsing him, reflecting the reality of what he faces in Kentucky.
The Great Reddening
The only two successful defeats of Republican officeholders in Kentucky in the last twenty years both came at the hands of Beshears. Between those events, Republicans held onto both U.S. Senate seats, won re-elections to those seats, achieved a 5-1 Congressional representation, expanded their State Senate majority to a super-majority, flipped the State House, and won every other statewide office.
In the three years since Andy Beshear’s election, the Republicans flipped the Democratic Party’s long-standing edge in state voter registration and won the overall Congressional vote in 2022 by nearly as large of a margin (31.59%) as the Democratic candidates earned in total (33.55%). On the Presidential level, it’s no contest. After Bill Clinton carried the state twice, George W Bush won it by fifteen- and twenty-point margins, McCain by 16, Romney by nearly 23, and Trump by 30 and 26 points.
This Great Reddening of the Bluegrass State is a trend that Beshear bucked four years ago- he won a chunk of voters who had pulled for the Republican in every other contest- but it was against a deeply unpopular incumbent. Repeating that trick requires a couple of things, several which are evident: a money advantage (to get out your voters and launch ads), an advertisement advantage (to define yourself and your opponent), and personal favorability.
What isn’t an indicator is head-to-head polling.
Don’t Bet on the Horses Here
For pollsters, their sponsors, and poll-obsessed election geeks the country over, horserace polling in Kentucky has been the stuff of nightmares. After the 2015 Gubernatorial race and the second acute polling misfire in a year, the Courier-Journal publicly ended their use of Survey USA. The state seems to bedevil every entity that tries to divine how Republican an election will end up. It’s gotten to the point where only two non-partisan polls have been released in Kentucky in the last eight months.
I really can’t exaggerate how bad the horserace polling is in this state. Harry Enten addressed it back in 2015 for FiveThirtyEight, and the problem just won’t go away. I went through forty polls released in the final months of every major statewide campaign from 2014 through 2022 (the final release in the rare case where a pollster had more than one that cycle). Comparing the horserace poll to the actual result was depressing, so much so, I called up a good friend of the Desk, Miles Coleman (at UVA’s Center for Politics) to commiserate about it.
When I asked him to guess how many of those 40 polls underestimated the Republican’s final vote share, his response was a sober “nearly all of them”. He was right: 39 out of those 40 polls had underestimated the Republican. The sole exception was a Trafalgar poll that found Bevin ahead in 2019*.
Worse than the consistent undercount was the scale of it: enough were in the double digits to yield an average eight-point miss. The error was far smaller on the Democratic side, with 28 of those 40 over-estimating, the balance spot-on or slightly under, and averaging out to a one-point overshoot. For whatever reason, the polls can tell you what the Democrat is going to end up with, but in a two-way race, you’re still missing half of the story.
Before everyone gives up hope of anything changing, I’d like to highlight an interesting event in the world of polling. Back in 2019, NBC News, Marist College and Edison Research tried an experiment in Kentucky to improve response from the elusive “white voters without a college degree”. The results of their experiment are worth a thorough read, but in summary they found a sample that accounted for geography and did not use cell phone samples matched to billing addresses came closest to the actual vote. The trio vowed to use what they had learned from it in their subsequent state polling in 2020.
Where We Are
Money and favorability is lifting Beshear up. The political gravity of the state gives Cameron a chance to defeat him, but we haven’t seen him really catch fire. With only a few weeks left in the campaign, Republicans still have a narrow window to catch up on advertising, but Beshear has been considerably dominant and likely won’t lose his edge there.
We will be following this race closely here at DDHQ and will post our geographic cheat guide later in the cycle, outlining what to look for on a county level as the numbers begin to roll in on November 7th. At least for now, I’m expecting a close win for Beshear. Such a result won’t surprise the Governor: he won his last two statewide elections by a combined margin smaller than the population of Ballard County!
*Trafalgar’s direct URL links to a locked Gdrive file