WASHINGTON — Six months ahead of the general election, U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., holds an 11-point advantage among registered voters over Republican challenger Tom Cotton, according to a new NBC News-Marist poll released Monday.
“Arkansas, which was once thought to be Democrats’ most vulnerable (contest for an incumbent), may not be the most vulnerable,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.
The poll, conducted April 30 to May 4 out of 876 registered voters, found Pryor leading Cotton 51 percent to 40 percent. The poll, which has a margin of error of plus/minus 3.3 percentage points, reflects other recent polls that showed Pryor with a lead.
“Mark is humbled by the support from Arkansans, but we’re taking nothing for granted,” said Pryor for Senate campaign manager Jeff Weaver.
The Cotton campaign questioned the poll results, and pointed instead to an OnMessage Inc. poll for Senate Republicans that showed the two candidates in a statistical dead heat among a survey of 600 likely voters taken between May 6 and May 8. It has a margin of error of plus/minus 4 percentage points.
“It shows where we believe the race is at this point,” said David Ray, a spokesman for the Cotton campaign.
While Pryor leads the Senate general election contest in Arkansas, Republican Asa Hutchinson has a seven-point advantage in the state’s gubernatorial contest over Democrat Mike Ross, 49 percent to 42 percent, according to the Marist Poll.
Ross and Hutchinson, both former congressman, are generally considered the front-runners in their respective May 20 primaries. Hutchinson’s GOP rival is Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman. Ross’ primary opponent is Little Rock substitute teacher Lynette Bryant.
Arkansas political science professors Hal Bass and Art English cautioned against reading too much into the poll results, saying the campaigns have a long way to go before the November elections.
Bass, a professor of politic science at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, said that most recent polls have shown Pryor with a small lead over Cotton, despite a more conservative political climate in the state. It suggests that Arkansas voters are identifying more with Pryor than Cotton.
“Arkansans want to claim our politicians as one of us. In that sense, I think it is telling that Pryor is known as ‘Mark’ and Cotton is not yet know as ‘Tom.’ That is probably showing up in these early polls. Cotton is more identified with Washington and a national identity,” Bass said.
Art English, professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas Little Rock, said the early poll results suggest Pryor and Hutchinson may be better known across the state than either Cotton or Ross, who have not run for statewide campaigns before.
“On the Pryor side, I think his campaign has done a pretty good job of identifying Cotton as someone who is out of the mainstream,” English said. “I think what you have seen the Cotton campaign doing to counter that is to have a lot of advertisements to humanize him — make him seem like a nice young man.”
The Marist Poll found strong support for Bill Clinton and Gov. Mike Beebe, both Democrats. President Barack Obama was viewed unfavorably in the state. And, most registered voters surveyed believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.