Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham have the approval of less than half the voters whose support they will need to get re-elected, according to a Winthrop Poll released Wednesday.
However, while the low approval ratings may signal some vulnerability in the Republican incumbents, the numbers do not mean their re-election hopes are in trouble, political observers said.
The poll results come as Haley prepares for an expected rematch next November against state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, and as Graham faces three challengers in June’s GOP primary.
Graham saw his support among S.C. Republicans drop to 45 percent in the Winthrop Poll, which interviewed 887 adults living in South Carolina from Oct. 19-27. That number is down from 72 percent in a February Winthrop poll.
The poll was conducted after Congress ended a 16-day partial federal government shutdown that resulted from an impasse over the budget and President Barack Obama’s health care law.
Asked who was to blame for the shutdown — Obama or congressional Republicans — 47 percent of poll participants blamed Republicans, 29 percent blamed Obama and 20 percent said both equally were at fault.
Graham’s approval rating among all S.C. voters — Republicans, Democrats and independents — also dropped to 37 percent from 48 percent in February.
The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.
Graham’s opponents — state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg; Easley businessman Richard Cash; and Charleston PR executive Nancy Mace — have been courting the GOP’s Tea Party and libertarian members in hopes of gaining an edge on Graham. They insist that the well-funded incumbent is vulnerable.
A spokesman with Graham’s campaign said the two-term senator is not focused on poll results.
“Lindsey Graham is focused on stopping Obamacare, which is proving to be an absolute disaster, and getting to the bottom of what actually happened in Benghazi,” said Graham campaign spokesman Tate Zeigler.
Haley, whose Republican support held strong at 66 percent, saw her approval rating among all S.C. voters increase slightly — to 45 percent, up less than a percentage point from February.
However, Haley’s job-disapproval marks rose to the highest of the year — 39 percent among South Carolinians and 41 percent among registered voters.
Candidates with less than 50 percent support often face tough campaigns or lose, said Mark Tompkins, a University of South Carolina political science professor.
Haley’s 45 percent job approval among all S.C. registered voters surveyed could spell trouble, he added, because “signs that voters aren’t enthusiastically supporting her have been around a while,” he said.
The effectiveness of Graham’s and Haley’s opponents will determine whether the incumbents should worry about their re-election bids, Tompkins and other political observers said.
This early in the election cycle, a poll does not reflect how voters will cast their ballots on Election Day, said Kyle Kondik, a University of Virginia political analyst. “(The elections are) so far away it’s kind of hard to determine who’s actually going to vote.”
Joel Sawyer, a political strategist with Push Digital who managed Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford’s congressional campaign, put it more pointedly: “Polls a year from an election are pretty much meaningless.”
Winthrop Poll director Scott Huffmon said the incumbents’ approval ratings may be below 50 percent at this time in the election calendar because a lot of voters — about one in seven, according to the poll — have no opinion yet of Graham or Haley.
That likely will change as more voters start paying attention and poll numbers start to move, Huffmon said.
Haley’s strength among Republicans is holding steady, as is her approval among S.C. voters, he said.
“I don’t think (Haley is) going to hand Senator Sheheen a lot more ammunition. He’s going to have to do the legwork ... and eke out a few more points,” he said.
As for Graham, the more than 20-point drop in his approval among Republicans since February “doesn’t mean he’s in dire trouble,” Huffmon said. “It means he’s potentially vulnerable. And when you’re a seated senator with a giant war chest, there’s a big difference.”
Voters’ opinions of Haley and Graham in the Winthrop Poll are in line with a poll of likely voters released this week by the Conservative Intelligence Briefing.
Conducted by Harper Polling, that poll showed 43 percent of voters disapproved of Haley, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percent. Thirty-seven percent of voters approve of Graham, the poll said.
A poll, released last week by the Democratic Governors Association, showed Haley leading Sheheen 44 percent to 40 percent — a statistical tie taking into account that poll’s margin of error.
Campaign spokesman Rob Godfrey said Haley is not worried about the polling numbers.
“Every recent poll — including the bogus Democratic poll they pushed out — shows Governor Haley ahead of liberal Democrat Vince Sheheen,” Godfrey said. “But the only numbers the governor cares about are the results the administration is delivering to the people of our state: more than 39,000 jobs announced, $9 billion investment, unemployment hitting a five-year low, $1 billion to strengthen our roads and bridges without raising taxes, and more than 18,000 people transitioned from welfare to work.”
S.C. Democratic Party spokeswoman Kristin Sosanie said the Winthrop Poll is evidence Haley is in trouble, repeating Sheheen’s Tuesday accusation that Haley mishandled last year’s computer theft of South Carolinians’ personal and financial information.
“This makes three polls in one week showing that Nikki Haley’s continued economic failures and incompetence leave her deeply unpopular in South Carolina,” Sosanie said. “Under Nikki Haley, median income is falling; South Carolina has been named one of the hardest places to earn a living and achieve the American dream.”
Other poll findings:
• South Carolinians remain roughly split on the General Assembly’s job performance, with 39 percent approving and 38 percent disapproving. Roughly one in five are not sure how they feel.
• S.C. residents think less of Obama and Congress, with 51 percent disapproving of Obama. Just 7 percent of S.C. residents gave Congress favorable marks, while 87 percent said they disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job.
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