- Associated Press - Saturday, November 7, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansans overwhelmingly dislike Democratic President Barack Obama, but less than a third identify themselves as Republican. They oppose gay marriage even after it was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court, but support equal rights for gays and lesbians in other arenas. And nearly half don’t have an opinion of the state’s senior U.S. senator after he’s been in office almost five years.

The annual Arkansas Poll released by the University of Arkansas last week doesn’t offer much immediate hope for Democrats who are still rebuilding after being routed in last year’s election. But it does suggest some very narrow openings that the party may be able to eventually capitalize on, despite the state’s rightward shift.

The first could be in Democrats’ longshot effort to unseat Republican Sen. John Boozman next year. Thirty-eight percent of respondents in the poll approved of Boozman, while 44 percent didn’t have an opinion of the Republican lawmaker. Only 18 percent of respondents disapproved of Boozman. Issues & Answers Network, Inc. surveyed 800 Arkansas residents by phone between Oct. 19 and Oct. 25. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

But the director of the poll cautioned to not read too much into Boozman’s approval numbers.

“It’s not like people don’t like him. It’s just they don’t know about him,” Janine Parry, the poll’s director, said. “That usually means they’re going to give him the benefit of the doubt.”

The poll didn’t ask about former federal prosecutor Conner Eldridge, who filed paperwork last week for the Democratic nomination to unseat Boozman. Eldridge has already signaled he could pose more of a threat to Boozman than expected, bringing in more during his first three weeks as a candidate than the incumbent Republican did during the entire third quarter.

Boozman’s in a stronger position when it comes to disapproval a year before the election than the past two incumbents who have been ousted in Arkansas. A year before Boozman unseated her in the 2010 election, Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln had a 34 percent disapproval rating. Former Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor had a 41 percent disapproval rating the year before Republican Tom Cotton defeated him in last year’s election.

Republicans’ strategy of linking Democrats to national figures such as Obama could continue to pay off, the polls suggests. Obama remains deeply unpopular in the state, with only 28 percent approving of his job performance. Fifty percent of very likely voters polled said they’d support a Republican in the 2016 presidential election, with only 31 percent saying they’d back a Democrat.

The poll showed higher support for the state’s other top Republicans, with 57 percent of respondents approving of Gov. Asa Hutchinson and 18 percent disapproving. Forty-five percent of respondents approved of Sen. Tom Cotton, while 27 percent disapproved.

The poll also showed that the state’s voters still remain conservative on key social issues, to a certain extent. Twenty-nine percent of respondents said they believed same-sex marriages should be recognized. But 72 percent said they believe gays and lesbians should have equal rights when it comes to housing, and 79 percent supported equal rights in terms of job opportunities.

The poll indicated strong support for legalizing medical marijuana, with 68 percent supporting and 26 percent opposed. Voters narrowly rejected a measure to legalize medical marijuana in the state in 2012, and advocates are trying to put a similar proposal on next year’s ballot.

The only ray of hope for Democrats in the poll is how little party identification has changed despite Republicans sweeping statewide and federal offices in Arkansas in recent years. Respondents were again nearly evenly split on whether they identify themselves as Republican, Democrat or independents.

Parry said those numbers could indicate a soft spot for Democrats, especially as Obama prepares to leave office.

“Again Arkansans seem to be buying the Republican product whether it’s Tom Cotton or Asa Hutchinson but they’re not buying the Republican brand as their preferred label,” she said. “It could very well be that that’s to come.”


Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo



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