Is there any wonder who has the momentum in this race?
Republican Bob Corker and Democrat Harold Ford Jr. are running neck-to-neck in their race for the U.S. Senate as they enter the campaign's home stretch, according to a new Mason-Dixon Tennessee Poll released today.
The survey of 625 registered, likely voters last week showed only one percentage point difference between support for Ford and support for Corker. Undecided voters accounted for 14 percent of poll respondents.
That makes the race a statistical dead heat, given the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Mason-Dixon Polling & Research of Washington conducted the statewide survey Monday through Wednesday for The Commercial Appeal, the Chattanooga Times Free Press and MSNBC.
Both campaigns found something to like in the new poll.
"It's clear that Harold Ford Jr. has the forward momentum in the Senate race," said Ford senior adviser Michael Powell.
Corker political director Todd Womack said, "Certainly it's going to be a competitive race, but we're encouraged about where we are," citing a Wall Street Journal poll indicating Corker ahead by 5 points.
In the last Mason-Dixon Tennessee Poll, conducted in mid-July before the primary elections, respondents favored Corker over Ford 49 to 36 percent when asked how they would vote in November if Corker and Ford won their respective party primaries. The most dramatic reversal since then has been among women, who favored Corker 47 to 38 percent.
The results of the latest poll indicate that Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga, is ahead of Ford in East Tennessee 48 to 36 percent, but Ford, the Memphis congressman, has a bigger lead in West Tennessee, 53 to 35 percent. The poll did not differentiate between Memphis and rural West Tennessee.
Middle Tennessee is a toss-up at 43 percent for Ford and 41 percent for Corker.
"It's a close race, and Ford has obviously gained some ground since the primary, when our last poll had Corker up by double digits in late July," said J. Brad Coker, managing director of the Mason-Dixon Poll. "Middle Tennessee is the battleground. Ford's doing well in West Tennessee and Corker is holding his own in East Tennessee," Coker said.
Both candidates are expected to spend significant time in Middle Tennessee. Ford headed to a county fair in Lawrenceburg Saturday after three rallies in Memphis, and plans to campaign at the Tennessee Titans game here today. Corker was in Nashville Friday.
Significantly, Corker is leading among the vital segment of voters who identify themselves as independents, 43 to 33 percent, with 23 percent undecided. Both candidates appear to be holding their party bases: Ford has the support of 88 percent of Democrats while Corker is backed by 76 percent of Republicans.
Coker, the poll director, said independents' votes "could be the key. The independents and Middle Tennessee voters will decide the race."
The poll indicates Corker is doing better among men while Ford leads among women. Among men, Corker leads 46 to 39 percent. Women favor Ford 47 to 38 percent.
Ford has a huge 91 to 3 percent lead among black voters. Corker leads 49 to 35 percent among whites. Because the sample size for any subgroup, such as a gender or regional grouping, is smaller than the overall poll, the margin of error for them is higher, the pollsters said.
Respondents told pollsters that the Iraq War is the issue that will most influence their votes for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives -- followed by the economy, homeland security and the war against terrorism.
When asked to pick from a list of 10 issues they feel will be most influential in their voting decision for national office, 21 percent of those surveyed said the war in Iraq, 16 percent said the economy, 12 percent said homeland security/war on terrorism, 9 percent said immigration, 8 percent said moral issues and family values, 7 percent said health care and 7 percent said taxes/government spending.
When asked which candidate they think will do a better job handling key issues, the results were a toss-up for Corker and Ford, all within the poll's margin of error. For example, 44 percent said Ford would do a better job handling issues related to the Iraq War, and 41 percent said Corker would do better.
Respondents were split, with 43 percent for each candidate, over which candidate would do a better job handling economic issues. And Ford led 42 to 38 percent when respondents were asked who would do a better job handling gas prices and energy.
Dr. John Vile, chairman of Middle Tennessee State University's political science department, said both campaigns "clearly need to focus on (voter) turnout. Ford has to get the Democrats out, especially those who are African-American. Corker clearly has to get out Republicans, some of whom are still smarting over primary defeats."
On the influence of the Iraq War, Vile said, "Personally, I don't see a lot of difference between the candidates on this issue, which could serve to mute its impact. By contrast, both candidates seem to be devoting far more attention to the immigration issue."
The poll is the latest to indicate the Tennessee Senate race is tight. A Zogby International poll for The Wall Street Journal Sept. 19-25 showed Corker ahead by 47.6 to 42.4 percent.