Herald & Review

Poll shows tight races for governor, U.S. Senate

Monday, October 25, 2010

SPRINGFIELD - Democratic Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn appears to be closing the gap with Republican challenger Bill Brady, while the state's U.S. Senate race remains a virtual tie, according to a new poll for the Herald & Review and St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Meanwhile, Illinoisans seem as torn as the candidates themselves on how to address the state's budget crisis and fund schools. More poll respondents were willing to accept Quinn's proposed income tax hike than Brady's proposal of deep across-the-board cuts, though a majority isn't embracing either solution.

The poll also found President Obama's approval rating in his home state has dropped to 51 percent, a dramatic indicator of how tough the national climate is for Democrats.

"Here's a guy whose numbers in Illinois have never been below 60, and he's flirting with 50-50," said pollster Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. of Washington, D.C. "That's an eye-popper."

The Mason-Dixon poll was conducted Monday through Wednesday. A total of 625 registered likely voters from around Illinois were interviewed by phone. The poll's margin for error is 4 percentage points.

The poll found Brady ahead of Quinn 44 percent to 40 percent, a lead that's right at the poll's margin for error. Quinn has trailed Brady by 10 points or more in polls taken earlier in the campaign, but more recent polling has shown the race tightening.

Quinn, formerly lieutenant governor, succeeded impeached Gov. Rod Blagojevich in January 2009 and is running for his first full term. He staked his campaign on ethics reform, job creation and a proposed increase in the state's 3 percent income tax to 4 percent to fund schools during the worst budget crisis in the state's history.

Brady, a state senator from Bloomington, has focused on long-term economic growth, with a no-tax-hike pledge at its core. He has proposed cutting some business taxes as a means of spurring growth and said he would address the state's crushing deficit with deep across-the-board budget cuts, including for education.

"I like that he's emphasizing spending cuts," said poll respondent Greg Ryan of Chicago, a Brady supporter. "I'm not sure he can cut 10 percent across the board like he says he can, but at least he has it on the table."

Some poll respondents who support Quinn point to his stances on social issues, which Quinn has been stressing to some extent in his campaign.

"Generally, he has been exceptional on women's issues, exceptional on gay rights issues," said respondent Deborah Rabor of Chicago, a former St. Louis-area resident. "Brady's stances on social issue are just archaic."

Brady opposes abortion rights, including in cases of rape and incest. Illinois is generally moderate in its politics, and Quinn has been trying to make an issue of Brady's social positions. Brady has been downplaying those issues in favor of economic ones.

The poll indicates most Illinois voters are thinking about the economy. When asked to rank "the single most important issue facing the country today," 68 percent of respondents said it was jobs and the economy. Government spending and taxes were the second most common concern, at 12 percent, and health care was third, at 5 percent. Just 4 percent of respondents listed "social issues/family values" as their top issue.

That's not the only bad news for Quinn. His negative name recognition is at 45 percent. Brady, still lesser known, has a negative rating of 32 percent.

"(Quinn) is still the incumbent, and he's still more unpopular," Coker said. Part of it is certainly the state's fiscal meltdown and ethics morass. Quinn inherited both problems, but critics contend he hasn't done enough to fix them.

That sums up the view of poll respondent Karen Beyer of Fairview Heights, a self-described independent and Obama supporter who is nonetheless leaning toward voting for Brady in the governor's race.

"I haven't totally decided, but I probably won't vote for Quinn," Beyer said. "He's done a good job in the transition (from Blagojevich), but I'm tired of the mess in Illinois."

As for the state's biggest mess - its massive budget deficit, estimated this year at more than $9 billion - the poll indicates Illinoisans don't like either candidate's approach. But they are more amenable to Quinn's proposed tax hike than to Brady's proposed deep cuts.

When respondents were asked, generically, whether they supported a plan to raise the income tax to 4 percent to fund schools, 43 percent supported the idea and 46 percent opposed it. When asked if they favored a 10 percent across-the-board budget cut, including to schools, only 34 percent of the respondents supported the idea, with 53 percent opposed.

"People always want to have their cake and eat it, too. It's called human nature," Coker said.

In the race to fill Obama's former U.S. Senate seat, currently held by retiring Democratic Sen. Roland Burris, the poll found a virtual tie between Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk and Democratic state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias. Kirk was ahead of Giannoulias 43 percent 41 percent, well within the poll's margin for error.

Most major polls have shown the race effectively tied for months, with a sizeable "undecided" factor, especially among Democrats.

The Senate race has been an especially personal battle, with Kirk hammering Giannoulias about his family bank's business with mob figures, and Giannoulias' campaign accusing Kirk of embellishing his military record.

Indeed, judging from poll respondents interviewed last week, the decision in the race may be not about who they like but who they dislike less.

"I was in the middle of the road" on the Senate race, said poll respondent Jeffrey Robertson of South Holland, who is supporting Brady for governor but has decided to support Giannoulias for the Senate. "Kirk lied about his military service. If he would lie about that, what else would he lie about?"

The traditional downstate distrust of Chicago - and particularly of top Democrats from Chicago - was evident in the results. Brady's thin overall lead over Quinn jumps in various downstate regions (though the poll's margin for error is wider in those subsets). Kirk enjoys a similar downstate boost over Giannoulias.

"Giannoulias is nothing but a political insider from Chicago," said poll respondent Brad Peterson of Champaign, when asked why he supports Kirk.

Coker said one bright spot in the poll for Giannoulias may be the breakdown of the undecided votes. Just 6 percent of Republican respondents say they are undecided, where a remarkable 23 percent of Democratic respondents are undecided.

That means there's a reserve of Democratic voters likely to come Giannoulias' way, however reluctantly, Coker said: "They don't like Giannoulias, but in the end, they may not be able to get themselves to vote for a Republican."