When Trump’s coattails just weren't enough
by Ryan Lloyd, Jaclyn Johnson, and Benjamin Knoll
In the recent Kentucky gubernatorial election, incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin (R) lost by fewer than 5,200 votes to Attorney Gen. Andy Beshear (D) in a state that President Donald Trump (R) carried by about 30 percentage points in 2016. Although the national parties tried their best to turn the race into a referendum on President Trump, Beshear won the race by focusing primarily on local issues and Bevin’s controversies within the state. The contest showed the limits of presidential power in state elections and failed to give us much of a signal about what to expect in the 2020 general election.
As part of the Collaborative Kentucky Exit Poll (CKEP)*, we conducted an election day survey of Kentucky voters to help make sense of the election results. With the invaluable collaboration of our students, we were able to interview 3,913 voters across five counties in Kentucky, with questions ranging from vote choices in the 2019 election to opinions on foreign policy and local issues.
Scholars of American and comparative politics recognize coattail effects where presidential campaigns can have down-ballot effects on gubernatorial and congressional races. Even though Donald Trump was not on the ballot, he was a visible theme in this race. Bevin was determined to use this to his advantage, vocally opposing the impeachment of Trump, and actively seeking Trump’s support. Trump obliged, holding a rally in Lexington the day before the election in support of Bevin.
Beshear, however, largely stuck to Kentucky issues. He ran against Bevin’s record on local issues, with a heavy emphasis on Bevin’s controversies over the past four years. This included a controversial pension reform, and after a teachers’ strike in response, subsequent inflammatory remarks about children being sexually assaulted and trying drugs because teachers were out protesting. He also proposed changes to the state’s Medicaid program, including establishing work requirements that would affect 620,000 people and cost $272 million over two years, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. These proposals were later struck down by federal judges, and Beshear promised to rescind them during his first week as governor. Finally, as a staunch opponent of legalizing casino gambling, he claimed on video that suicides happened “every night” in casinos, and then denied having said so when Beshear challenged him on it during a gubernatorial debate.
As a result, trying to nationalize the race could only help Bevin so much. Of those who had somewhat favorable views of President Trump (a non-trivial percentage--13.1%), Bevin captured only 68.6% of the vote, with Beshear peeling off a full 30.2% of this segment of the population. Furthermore, Bevin did not have the same success with the opposite side of the aisle as Beshear did; of those who had somewhat unfavorable evaluations of Trump, he won 22.3% of the vote, and for those with very unfavorable views, he won a mere 3.3%. In other words, Bevin only won among Trump supporters, whereas Beshear was able to make inroads among various parts of the population, including 16.5% of Republicans and Republican-leaners.
The other side of that coin, though, is that Trump’s support does seem to have worked for Bevin. Bevin was able to turn one of the worst approval ratings in the nation into a competitive result, winning 48.8% of the vote and losing by only 0.4%. In our statewide sample, 41.2% had a very favorable view of President Trump. Of this subsection of the population, Bevin did well, winning 86.9% of their votes. Although 39.1% had a very unfavorable view of Trump, the percentage of voters who had very favorable opinions of him was more than twice as much as any other national political figure whose favorability we surveyed (Sen. Mitch McConnell, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, ex-Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Bernie Sanders). In this case, though, this was just not enough to give Bevin a win.
Two other findings that came through loud and clear in our data were the religion and gender gaps among Republicans and Democrats. Bevin’s support was concentrated among observant Christians, particularly evangelicals. On the one hand, Bevin won 63.3% of evangelicals and 58.4% of those who attended religious services at least once a week. On the other hand, Beshear won 60.1% of non-evangelical Protestants, 75.4% of those with “no religion in particular,” 61.6% of those who followed “other” religions, and 71% of those who never attend religious services.
Women were not fans of state-wide Republican candidates in general, including Sen. McConnell, who received very or somewhat favorable ratings from only 38.9% of female voters as opposed to 50.9% of male voters. That said, they were especially skeptical of Trump and Bevin, with Bevin losing to Beshear by 56.5%-41.7% among women (but winning 52.2%-44.2% among men), with 13% fewer women than men holding a very favorable view of President Trump. This gender gap appears to be robust and could cause Republicans problems in both national- and state-level elections.
If there is a broader lesson to be taken from this year’s gubernatorial election in Kentucky, it is that there is a limit on how far state-level elected officials can tie their electoral fates to President Trump. In Kentucky’s election, at least, the challenger focused on local issues, and a considerable number of voters duly seemed to separate their views between President Trump and gubernatorial candidates. They voted accordingly, and might very well do so again next year.
*CKEP is a multi-university consortium made up of Centre College, University of Kentucky, Campbellsville University, University of Cincinnati, Morehead State University, and the University of Pennsylvania.
Ryan Lloyd is a Visiting Assistant Professor of International Studies at Centre College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jaclyn Johnson is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Politics at Centre College. She can be reached at email@example.com.