Sanders, Cotton poll low in polarized times

Steve Brawner

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ and Sen. Tom Cotton’s approval ratings both were lower than might be expected in the Arkansas Poll released Monday, although neither probably would have to worry too much about it in their next election


Sanders had an approval-disapproval rating of 48%-39%, with the percentages about the same among likely voters at 51-40. 

The annual poll was conducted by the University of Arkansas’ Diane D. Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society. Janine Parry is the director. Pollsters contacted 801 voters by telephone. The poll had a margin of error of plus-minus 3.5%, which is typical but can represent a pretty big swing. Don’t accept any poll as gospel, but this one is well regarded.

Sanders’ numbers are not terrible. It’s hard to please much more than half the people nowadays, anyway. 

But Asa Hutchinson’s numbers his last year in office, which was not long ago, were 59-24. No governor had dipped below 50% approval since Sanders’ father, Mike Huckabee, had hit 47% in 2003. That was when he had been trying to consolidate schools after the Lake View court case, Parry told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette back then. Mike Beebe didn’t go below 70% his first six years in office. His lowest approval numbers were 66%.

The numbers reflect both today’s polarized times and Sanders’ polarizing nature. Parry told the Democrat-Gazette this week that Sanders had an 85% approval rating among Republicans but only 9% among Democrats and 45% among independents. Hutchinson was lower among Republicans last year (68%) but much higher among Democrats (53%) and independents (60%). Also, the polling occurred Oct. 4-22 amidst ongoing controversies over the purchase of a $19,000 podium and her call for legislators to change the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Cotton, meanwhile, was at 42-44, his first time in the poll to be underwater. Last year, his numbers were 48-40, and in 2020 they were 58-32. The state’s other senator, the much less controversial John Boozman, wasn’t much better than Cotton at 40-38. That’s the closest he’s come to being underwater. Maybe the public’s generally low opinion of Congress is rubbing off on both of them. 

None of the three – Sanders, Cotton or Boozman – are in danger of losing an election. They are in the right state at the right time. The poll found there are more Republicans in Arkansas (33%) than Democrats (25%), which would surprise no one. Moreover, 44% of independents said they were closer to Republicans, versus 34% who said they were closer to Democrats. Forty-seven percent of respondents said they were conservative while only 17% said they were liberal and 29% said they were moderate. It’s no coincidence, then, that only 33% approve of President Biden, while his disapproval numbers were 30 points higher at 63%.

Given those numbers, the only real challenge Sanders, Cotton and Boozman might face would come from their own party. That hasn’t been a problem for any of them in the past. 

As for the state as a whole, 61% said they believed Arkansas is headed in the right direction, compared to 33% who said the opposite. That’s better than last year (55-32), Sanders’ spokesperson pointed out, but worse than most previous ones.

My first thought on that one was, that’s a little low considering all the good news the state has been enjoying lately. Already a leader in retail thanks to Walmart, Arkansas is becoming a top steel producer in Mississippi County and of military weaponry in south Arkansas. Companies in that same geographical area are investing millions to mine substantial lithium deposits – potentially the oil of the 21st century. State government is running huge surpluses, and lawmakers are cutting taxes.

But the following responses would probably provide some context. Only 18% thought they were financially better off this year than last, and the same percentage had that outlook for next year. Meanwhile, 36% said they were worse off this year, and 25% expect to be worse next year. 

In other words, regardless of what’s happening with the steel industry in Mississippi County or the potential lithium boom in Smackover, what you really care about regarding the state’s economy is what you see in your own bank account.

Also, if you’re one of the 39% who don’t approve of Sanders and the 44% who disapprove of Cotton, you’re more likely to think the state is on the wrong track. 

The Razorbacks being 2-6 this season probably doesn’t help.

Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 16 outlets in Arkansas. Email him at brawnersteve@mac.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.

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