Poll shows Grimes leads McConnell for Kentucky Senate. Upsurge or outlier?

It’s the first time since June that Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of State, has led Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell in a big poll.

Timothy D. Easley/AP
Kentucky Democratic Senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes speaks to a group of supporters during a political rally at the Hal Rogers Center in Hazard, Ky., Aug. 8, 2014.

It’s Monday, so we’ve got another dose of big poll news: in Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes is ahead of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell by two percentage points in a just-released Bluegrass survey.

That’s the first time since June that Ms. Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of State, has led in a major poll. The man she’s trying to replace, GOP Senator McConnell, has been ahead in at least 10 polls since then, including five released since Sept. 1.

So Grimes’s 46 to 44 percent edge is a big deal, or would be if it reveals actual movement in the race, instead of a statistical anomaly.

“Probably [an] outlier,” tweeted University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato shortly after the poll was released. “But if Grimes downs McConnell, biggest upset of ’14 ....”

Technically the new poll is a tie, since its margin of error is plus-or-minus four points. The previous Bluegrass poll, taken in late August, showed McConnell up by four points. Factor in that previous survey’s margin of error, and you’ve got a result that might show a tiny move toward Grimes – or might not show any movement at all.

Pretty much all other political measurements still show a McConnell lead. The RealClearPolitics rolling average of major surveys, which includes the new Bluegrass results, has him in front by 4.2 percentage points.

Political forecasting models – which take both polls and other factors, such as Kentucky’s Republican lean, into account – are more emphatic. The FiveThirtyEight data journalism site model puts McConnell’s chance of victory at 88 percent. At The New York Times Upshot site, it’s 92 percent.

In other words, it still looks unlikely that the GOP might take the Senate yet lose the man poised to be the next majority leader. McConnell has run an aggressive campaign against Grimes and won’t fumble away his seat because he underestimated his opponent.

That said, there are some internal numbers in the new Bluegrass results that would concern the McConnell camp if they’re confirmed in subsequent polls. The survey shows Grimes gaining five points among self-described Democrats. She’s the choice of 72 percent of her party’s voters in the state, as opposed to 67 percent in the August Bluegrass poll.

That could mean she’s winning over a larger portion of her state’s still-large contingent of conservative Democrats.

As Philip Bump notes at "The Fix" blog at The Washington Post, the new poll also shows a net gain of nine points for Grimes among men, and a whopping net gain of 21 points among the 35-to-49 age group.

“If men really are stepping away from McConnell or if that age group swung wildly against the incumbent, that would suggest something dramatic is happening on the ground – something that isn’t readily apparent from 30,000 feet,” Mr. Bump writes.

But it’s also quite possible there is nothing dramatic happening and the swings in the numbers are normal statistical noise. Meanwhile, conservatives aren’t focused on the latest poll. They’re looking at a report in the right-leaning Washington Free Beacon that members of Grimes’s campaign team have been caught on tape speculating that she does not really support the coal industry, which is a pillar of the Kentucky economy.

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