Extensive Kentucky governor’s race exit polling led by Centre College offers insights into Bevin-Beshear contest

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Statewide exit polling conducted by political scientists from Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, shows that Republican defectors likely caused Matt Bevin (R) to lose the gubernatorial campaign to Andy Beshear (D).

With off-year elections recently completed in Kentucky, Mississippi and Virginia, pundits are working hard to make sense of the results.

Thanks to extensive exit polling in the Bluegrass state led by three Centre College faculty members and their students, the tight race between Matt Bevin and Andy Beshear is starting to make sense.

Not only were exit surveys conducted in Boyle County, home to Centre College for the last 200 years, but efforts were also coordinated with faculty and students at Morehead State University, Campbellsville University, the University of Cincinnati and the University of Kentucky to gather results in six additional counties: Boone, Campbell, Fayette, Kenton, Pulaski, Taylor and Rowan.

In all, nearly 4,000 Kentucky voters participated in the exit poll.

Dubbed the 2019 Collaborative Kentucky Exit Poll, the effort represents perhaps the most extensive academic exit polling ever conducted in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, since it aggregated data from across the state, including some of the most populous and contested areas.

Led by researchers Benjamin Knoll and Jaclyn Johnson, who teach politics at Centre, along with Ryan Lloyd in international studies, the polling tried to make sense of several questions, such as who were the Republicans who voted for Beshear and did the Libertarian candidate John Hicks cost Bevin the election?

For instance, partisanship and political views were addressed in an attempt to understand if favorable or unfavorable views of President Trump played a role in voting patterns. According to the data, while 91.4 percent of those holding an unfavorable view of Trump voted for Beshear, 82.3 percent of those with a favorable view voted for Bevin.

In an election decided by just over 5,000 votes, small margins like this apparently mattered.

As well, exit polling found that a key factor in party defection was age, since a larger percentage of younger Republican voters cast their ballot for Beshear.

According to Knoll, “A total of 8.3 percent of all Kentucky voters were Republicans who voted for Beshear.” Exit polling suggested that the average GOP Beshear voter age was 46, compared to 53 for GOP Bevin voters, and that “23.2 percent of Republican voters under age 40 voted for Beshear, compared to 13.7 percent of Republicans over 40.”

Johnson interpreted this to mean that “Millennials and Gen Z voters appear more willing to cross party lines than older voters.”

She also understood the data more broadly to suggest that “Republicans did not defect at the same rate for other state-wide contests beyond the gubernatorial election,” since 91.3 percent of registered GOP voters, for example, cast a ballot for attorney general candidate Daniel Cameron.

The rich data also looks at the impact of gender, race and ethnicity, educational level and level of religious devotion on voting patterns, along with attitudes about 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Johnson found that “Kentucky voters seem to have lukewarm feelings about each candidate, with no clear front runner.” Specifically, voters were asked only about Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Favorability questions were also asked about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

In terms of a potential spoiler factor, survey results suggested that 53.2 percent of those who voted for Hicks identified as Republican. Knoll concluded that if “roughly half of Hicks’ voters who identify as Republican chose to vote for Bevin instead, Bevin would have easily beat Andy Beshear by close to 10,000 votes.”

This is actually the sixth time Knoll has involved his students in exit polling, stretching back to efforts in 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016. Teaming up with Centre colleagues Johnson and Lloyd helped extend the bandwidth, with approximately one in three Boyle County voters being surveyed.

This provides a wonderful educational opportunity for students.

According to Centre College junior Roop Patel (Ft. Wright, Kentucky), “Exit polling allowed us to witness firsthand an essential characteristic of American citizenship and allowed us to think deeper as to what it means to be a democracy.”

Senior Dahabo Kerow of Louisville agreed, also noting that “the experience was highly impactful as it allowed us to see how community, gender dynamics and cultural differences influenced how people reflected on the election.”

According to Centre junior Will Dyekman (Elizabethtown, Kentucky), “Exit polling was one of the most eye-opening experiences I have had during my time at Centre College. I appreciated the opportunity to work with a nationally recognized media outlet like FiveThirtyEight, while also being able to personally interact with voters from across Danville.”
Dyekman is referring to the fact that the survey was developed in part with assistance from Daniel Hopkins, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist who also writes for FiveThirtyEight. Hopkins and his colleagues were particularly interested in understanding attitudes in Kentucky about the ACA or Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.

That connection with Hopkins led to the data already catching the attention of Nathaniel Rakich, also of FiveThirtyEight, whose article “What Virginia, Mississippi and Kentucky Can Tell Us About 2020” references some of the survey results.

Full topline results by Benjamin Knoll for the survey questions are available at: https://informationknoll.files.wordpress.com/2019/11/ckep-survey-topline-results.pdf.

Further detailed analysis by Jaclyn Johnson is available at: https://informationknoll.files.wordpress.com/2019/11/ckep_2019_release110819.pdf.

Contact information:

Centre College faculty involved in the exit polling are able and willing to comment on the survey results.

  • Dr. Benjamin Knoll can be reached at benjamin.knoll@centre.edu or 859.238.5281
  • Dr. Jaclyn Johnson can be reached at jaclyn.johnson@centre.edu or 859.238.6044
  • Dr. Ryan Lloyd can be reached at ryan.lloyd@centre.edu or 859.238.5248

Centre College, founded in 1819, offers its students a world of opportunities, highlighted by one of the nation’s premier study abroad programs and a faculty ranked among the best in the nation for “Best Undergraduate Teaching” at a liberal arts college by U.S. News & World Report. Centre graduates enjoy extraordinary success, with entrance to top graduate and professional schools, prestigious fellowships for further study abroad (Rhodes, Rotary, Fulbright), and rewarding jobs (on average, 97 percent are employed or in advanced study within a year of graduation).

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