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Salango may not be out, but he sure is down

Another poll in the West Virginia Governor’s race indicates that incumbent Republican Jim Justice maintains a commanding lead over Democratic challenger Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango.

The WMOV Radio Poll conducted last week by Triton Polling and Research found that 54 percent of likely voters favored Justice while 35 percent favored Salango.  Seven percent favored other candidates and just five percent were undecided.

The results are almost the same as the MetroNews West Virginia Poll conducted earlier in the month. Our poll had Justice at 53 and Salango at 34.

There have been other polls that show the race much closer, and those are the ones that Salango campaign spokesperson Kelsi Browning referenced when contacted.

“Other polls show Ben Salango within striking distance.  The early voting numbers show that there is excitement for Salango,” she said.  “In the home stretch, we are focusing on getting out the vote and letting voters know that there is a real choice on the ballot between public service and self-service.

Salango has faced several challenges in this race that have proven difficult to overcome.

First, the contest has changed dramatically since he announced last fall. At the time, Morning Consult’s approval ratings for the country’s governors had Justice near the bottom.

2019 was a tumultuous year for Justice; a second teachers strike in as many years, story after story about unpaid bills by his companies and a growing perception that by living in Lewisburg he was governing in absentia.

The pandemic changed the metrics of the race. Justice, after a couple of early stumbles, took the lead on the state’s response.  Those daily briefings, many carried live on television and radio, contributed to the perception that Justice was in command and negated the criticism that he didn’t come to work.

Justice has dominated the news cycle since March in a way that no other Governor in the state’s history could.

The MetroNews West Virginia Poll found that 63 percent of likely voters either strongly approve or somewhat approve of the way Justice has handled the state’s response to the coronavirus. Only 29 percent disapproved.

Salango, despite campaigning vigorously and raising legitimate questions about how the state has handled the pandemic, has found it difficult to break through on the issue.

Second, voters grouse about elected politicians, but the incumbency provides a significant advantage. Justice went into the re-election campaign with sky-high name recognition.  Salango was appointed to the Kanawha County Commission in 2017 and won election in 2018.

So, he is known there, but building name recognition in a state as geographically diverse as West Virginia is a mammoth—and expensive—undertaking.  Our poll found that when voters were asked whether they approved or disapproved of Salango, 37 percent said they were “not sure.”

That uncertainty also provides an opportunity for Justice to define Salango with attack ads.

Third, Salango has a top-of-the-ticket problem. Granted, voters are more likely today to split their ballot, but it helps Justice to have Donald Trump and Shelley Moore Capito at the top.

Fourth, Salango did not get enough face-to-face meetings with Justice. He did well in the one debate and landed some punches. However, many of the state’s TV stations did not carry it live and he badly needed at least another two debates to put himself on an even playing field with Justice.

I have heard it theorized that Salango ran just to establish himself as the front runner four years from now. I have covered enough races to know candidates like Salango do not pour themselves and their money into a campaign thinking they are going to lose. Driven candidates are in it to win it.

Salango can hope that the stars will come into alignment on election night, and upsets do happen.  However, he must also know how unlikely that is.








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