CHARLESTON, W.Va. — “Not sure” is the current frontrunner in West Virginia’s Democratic primary race for governor.
In other words, 42.3 percent of likely Democratic voters are undecided five months before Election Day, according to the latest MetroNews West Virginia Poll.
From there, three candidates are practically tied.
Activist Stephen Smith is at 21.4 percent, state Senator Ron Stollings is at 18.6 percent, and Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango is at 17.7 percent.
The poll could have an overall statistical error of +/- 4.4 percentage points, so those results are close enough to be shuffled.
“So it is essentially a three-way tie based on support as of December, 2019, with an election roughly five months away,” said pollster Rex Repass, president of Research America Inc., which conducts the West Virginia Poll.
With so many people still undecided, there’s ample opportunity to emerge from the pack.
“The three are in a dead heat and there’s a lot of opportunity to pull ahead,” Repass sad.
Back in August, the last round of polling looked at a possible gubernatorial run by Joe Manchin, among the state’s best-known political figures. But Manchin opted to return to the U.S. Senate, opening the door to lesser-known candidates.
“It is relatively early,” Stollings said in a telephone interview this week. “With Senator Manchin still kind of equivocating until Labor Day it delayed us getting out of the chute.”
Name recognition remains a challenge for each Democratic candidate.
Stollings, who has been in the state Senate since 2006, has the most name recognition in the Democratic field, but only 13 percent say they know “a great deal” or “a lot” about him.
Sixty-nine percent say they know “very little” or “nothing at all” about Stollings.
Smith has 8 percent saying they know “a great deal” or “a lot” about him, with 76 percent saying they know “very little” or “nothing at all.”
Salango has 7 percent saying they know him well and 76 percent saying they barely know him.
“In a race like this when there’s not a known statewide candidate you’re going to see a large number of undecideds this early,” Repass said.
“It will decrease in the natural order of things, but these three candidates — and there are others too – while they may be well known in their communities they aren’t necessarily known well at all statewide.”
A few other Democratic candidates do register somewhat with likely voters.
When asked “Is there anyone else you would support who hasn’t been mentioned?” four respondents named Cecil Silva, who is a Boone County resident, three mentioned Jody Murphy, an economic developer in Pleasants County, and one mentioned Edwin Vanover of Bluefield.
“You have to be known before you can be considered, and that is their biggest challenge,” Repass said.
Smith, former director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, has been campaigning for months.
Based largely on small-dollar donations, the Smith campaign had raised $452,692.34 through the first campaign finance reporting periods. The next reporting deadline comes after the end of this month.
“We didn’t start this campaign with a bunch of millionaires behind us,” Smith said. “We had to work for every little bit of us.”
The campaign, called “West Virginia Can’t Wait,” has had dozens of town hall meetings across the state.
Smith spoke on the telephone on Thursday evening while on his way to Morgantown to the campaign’s 145th town hall.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” he said, “but we’ve got a people’s political machine to get there,”
The campaign hasn’t purchased mass media advertising so far, and it’s not clear whether it will.
“We think there is nothing more valuable in politics than one on one, face-to-face conversations,” Smith said.
Salango, who has been a Kanawha County commissioner since 2017, got into the race this fall — too recently to have filed a campaign finance report. Salango has not yet advertised.
“It’s not a surprise that we’re in a statistical tie. My campaign is just getting started,” Salango said on the telephone this morning.
“At the time the poll was run, we had only been campaigning for less than 60 days. We have strong fundraising support. And there are a lot of undecided voters who have not heard my message.”
The Charleston plaintiffs attorney has landed several endorsements from local unions. This week, Salango hired Grant Herring, who had been a spokesman for Manchin, to manage his campaign.
Salango was in Huntington on Thursday evening, the latest of a series of meet-and-greet events. He’ll be in a Christmas parade tonight.
“This race is going to come down to who can beat Jim Justice,” he said, referring to the current incumbent Republican governor who was elected as a Democrat. “So we’re out meeting voters, attending events and raising money.”
Stollings, a doctor from Boone County, also joined the race in late summer and hasn’t yet filed a financial report. He has an advertisement that describes his early life growing up with a single mother who died of cancer, with Stollings benefiting from the support of his community.
Contacted on the telephone on Thursday, Stollings was driving to the Eastern Panhandle (and speaking on a hands-free call, he pointed out) for political events including the Jefferson County Democratic Dinner, a legislative update before the Berkeley County Chamber of Commerce and a meet-and-greet at Shepherdstown’s Bavarian Inn.
Stollings has made West Virginia’s fight against drug addiction the focus of his campaign, describing the plight of 10,000 students considered homeless and 7,000 children in foster care.
“We’re applying to be the CEO of the state of West Virginia, and I hope people can look at the resumes to see who might have the best chance to move us forward,” Stollings said.
Repass said the candidates will have to work to become better known to the public before one emerges as the nominee.
“We know that awareness for these candidates is very low. So what needs to be done is, whether it’s retail campaigning or media, introducing or building on name recognition is critical for those who happen to be in the plurality position at this time,” Repass said.
“There is opportunity but it will take the grassroots effort, more media, alignment with other sin the party and a lot of work between now and May.”
Results of this edition of MetroNews West Virginia Poll are based on interviews conducted between Dec. 4 to 10, 2019, with a sample of 500 West Virginia registered voters who are likely to vote in the May 2020 primary, including registered Democrats, Republicans, Libertarian, Mountain Party, and unaffiliated or independent voters. Data collection was completed online and by telephone with purchased sample of registered voters who are likely to vote in primaries.
Registered likely voters in all 55 West Virginia counties were sampled for the survey and modeled to the number of registered voters based on data from the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office.
When using sample of registered voters and hybrid data collection (online and telephone) it is not appropriate to apply a probability-based margin of error to interviews completed. However, applying statistical tests of significance to each question asked at the 95 percent confidence interval yields an overall statistical error of +/- 4.4 percentage points based on the 500 interviews. The 95 percent confidence interval varies by question.
The purpose of the West Virginia Poll is to provide a snapshot of opinion and timely voter views in the Mountain State. The media sponsor of the West Virginia Poll is MetroNews Radio Network.
Rex Repass is director of the West Virginia Poll and president of Research America Inc. Repass is responsible for questionnaire design, the respondent screening and selection process, data tabulation, statistical analysis, and reporting of results.
The MetroNews West Virginia Poll is a non-partisan survey of public opinion conducted by Repass and Research America Inc. The West Virginia Poll has been directed by Repass and conducted periodically since January 21, 1980. The name The West Virginia Poll is a trademark owned by Research America Inc., all rights reserved.