A new Big Red Poll of Kentucky voters from Western Kentucky University shows Rand Paul and Donald Trump with substantial leads in their races, but also a general dissatisfaction with most public officials as evidenced by low favorability ratings. The election Tuesday, as a whole, is marked by unique circumstances, said Joel Turner, director of the WKU Social Science Research Center, which conducted the poll last week.
Low favorability ratings for the presidential candidates and a contentious campaign have made turnout numbers anyone's guess.
"Traditionally, negativity and malaise has repressed voter turnout," Turner said.
The poll of 602 likely voters shows Republican Trump leading Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton 54 percent to 37 percent, with 6 percent undecided. Paul, a Bowling Green Republican, leads Democratic nominee and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray 55 percent to 39 percent in the poll, with 6 percent undecided. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The poll also showed generally low favorability ratings for state and national political figures. Of the seven figures whose favorability ratings were evaluated, none topped 50 percent and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had the lowest favorability rating at 30 percent, 1 percentage point less than President Barack Obama.
McConnell's rating below the president's "surprised me as well," Turner said, adding that it's indicative of general "anti-Congressional sentiment." The poll showed 79 percent of respondents disapproved of the job Congress is doing.
In the presidential race, the poll showed 36 percent of respondents thought Trump was more qualified to be president, 35 percent thought Clinton was. Trump had a favorable rating of 48 percent (vs. 49 percent unfavorable) while Clinton was at 34 percent favorable and 64 percent unfavorable.
Republicans and Democrats didn't expect to nominate such polarizing candidates, Turner said.
"It makes it unpredictable," as far as turnout and what the final margin will be, Turner said. "Who knows what will happen."
In the fight for the senate seat, Gray had by far the best favorable-unfavorable rating – 33 percent viewing the Glasgow native favorably against 21 percent unfavorably. A whopping 45 percent were not sure how they stood on Gray – a major problem a week before election day.
"A large percentage don't have enough information" about Gray, Turner said, as the political scene has been dominated by the presidential race.
"Trump has sucked the air out of the room," Turner said.
Paul had a favorable rating of 49 percent against 42 percent unfavorable.
A consulting firm used by Republicans, RunSwitch Public Relations, conducted a poll last week that showed a somewhat tighter Senate race than the Big Red Poll. The RunSwitch poll had Paul leading Gray 52 percent to 42 percent. The same poll had Trump leading Clinton 56 percent to 32 percent in Kentucky.
While Democrats have a statewide voter registration lead – 1.6 million to 1.3 million, according to the Kentucky Secretary of State website – the Big Red Poll sampled an equal number of Democrats and Republicans.
"We did a random sample of people likely to vote," said Turner, adding that Republicans have outperformed Democrats in federal elections in the state.
"It is so hard to model what turnout will be," he said.
Turner said it's not clear if the Republican trend in federal races will be enough to flip the state House of Representatives, where Democrats hold a 53-47 advantage.
Other findings of the Big Red Poll include:
•Gov. Matt Bevin was viewed favorably by 43 percent of respondents and unfavorably by 42 percent. In terms of the job performance of the Republican governor, 46 percent approved, 41 percent disapproved.
•Twenty-five percent of respondents thought neither Clinton or Trump were qualified to be president.
•Thirty-six percent of respondents to the Big Red Poll approved of the job performance of the president (61 percent disapproved), while only 14 percent approved of the job Congress was doing.