- Associated Press - Sunday, November 2, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Regardless of how they may feel about Democratic Party candidates, voters seem to be embracing a minimum wage increase that has been a key part of the party’s campaign. They feel Arkansas is generally headed in the right direction, and most are either doing about the same or better financially than a year ago.

They love the state’s Democratic two-term governor about as much as they dislike the president from the same party. They’re also leaving open the possibility of supporting a Democrat in the 2016 presidential campaign.

The latest figures from the University of Arkansas’ annual Arkansas Poll had plenty of dismal figures for Democrats as they try to fend off a Republican takeover that’s been building in the state over the past two elections. But it also offers plenty of confounding results that could be trouble spots for Republicans in the future.

The poll was unwelcome news for the Democrats’ top hopefuls. The poll, conducted Oct. 21-27, showed Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton with a 49-36 lead over Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor among very likely voters in their nationally watched race. Its margin of error was plus or minus 4.1 percentage points. It showed Republican gubernatorial hopeful Asa Hutchinson with a 50-39 lead over Democratic rival Mike Ross.

The poll suggests the Republican Party’s playbook of tying Democrats to President Barack Obama - whose approval sank to 27 percent - hasn’t run out of steam.

“The Arkansas electorate doesn’t like the national administration and they’re going to punish anyone who can be connected to it,” said Janine Parry, the political science professor who directs the poll.

That may include Democrats running for Congress and the state Legislature, who similarly trailed by large margins in generic matchups in the UA poll.

Democrats can take comfort that the UA poll varies wildly from another recent poll that showed Ross and Pryor within striking distance of their Republican rivals. An NBC News-Marist poll of likely voters conducted Oct. 19-23 showed Cotton with a 45-43 edge over Pryor, well within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points. The same poll showed Hutchinson with a 47-44 lead over Ross.

The NBC News-Marist poll included voters who were leaning one way or the other.

Not every Democrat is suffering, however. Gov. Mike Beebe, who has withstood the anti-Obama sentiment that’s led to the GOP gains in the state, saw his approval rating rise to 70 percent. A ballot measure to gradually raise Arkansas’ minimum wage - a proposal that was embraced early on by Democrats as a way to boost turnout - won nearly that same level of support in the poll.

The poll also offers some hope to Democrats for the future. Former Secretary of State and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton enjoyed 47 percent support for a 2016 presidential bid versus 38 percent for a generic Republican. The polls also offered a potential opening in the 2016 Senate race, with Republican U.S. Sen. John Boozman having a 41 percent approval rating.

The other opening may come in party identification. Very likely voters were split nearly evenly about whether they identified themselves as Republican, Democrat or independent. Among independents, there was a drop in how many thought of themselves as Republican - from 51 percent last year to 43 percent this year. It comes after the GOP saw a rise for two years in a row in the percentage of independents who saw themselves as Republicans.

Those results indicate Republicans may still face challenges in keeping independents in their corner in the future.

“They’re buying the product, but they’re not sold on the brand,” Parry said.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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