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The 4 big takeaways from the NYT/Kaiser Senate polls

File:  Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), holds a pan of raccoon meat at the Gillett Coon Supper in Gillett, Ark. (Danny Johnston/AP)

The New York Times and the Kaiser Family Foundation are out with new polls in four key Southern Senate races today.

The one finding everyone is talking about is Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) leading Rep. Tom Cotton (R) by 10 points, 46-36. But there are plenty of other takeaways as we continue to survey the Senate landscape.

Here are some of the key points:

1) Pryor's surprising lead

Most polling has shown a much closer race between Pryor and Cotton, with early polling even showing Cotton with a lead.

But this poll suggests Pryor is still well-liked, with a 47 percent approval rating and just 38 percent disapproving. If the GOP's Obamacare attacks are going to weigh him down, they haven't really done the trick just yet.

Democrats are also notably running close in the state's open governor's race, with former congressman Mike Ross (D) at 40 percent and former congressman Asa Hutchinson (R) at 41 percent.

The poll seems to confirm that idea that Arkansas remains something of a political anomaly. It's still quite conservative, but it's more in touch with its Democratic past than are some other Southern states.

2) It's not all bad for the GOP

The Arkansas result is getting all the attention, because some have suggested Pryor is a sitting duck. But the poll shows the GOP continues to have a great chance to unseat incumbents in two other states.

Yes, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) leads a crowded field in Louisiana's open primary by a lot (the highest Republican is Rep. Bill Cassidy at 18 percent). But she's at just 42 percent.

Forty-two percent also happens to be Sen. Kay Hagan's (D-N.C.) level of support against state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R). Hagan leads 42-40, within the margin of error.

Democrats say they're heartened that both incumbents are leading, but being in the low-40s is generally very tough territory for an incumbent. And given Louisiana's runoff law, Landrieu needs to get to 50 percent-plus-one to win -- either in the general election or in a December runoff.

In fact, in her 2008 race, which Landrieu won by six points but was a top GOP target, the lowest she ever polled in the election year was 46 percent.

That same year, the incumbent that Hagan beat, Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R), didn't poll in the low 40s until much later in the year.

3) Kentucky is (still) very, very close

Just about every poll of Kentucky has shown Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) near dead-even, and this poll is no different. It shows McConnell at 44 percent and Grimes at 43 percent.

McConnell isn't in the low-40s like Hagan and Dole, but he is in the mid-40s, which is also pretty dangerous territory, especially for a guy who has been around for decades and is a known quantity.

The poll also shows McConnell's approval rating is at just 40 percent, with 52 percent disapproving. That means he needs to woo quite a few people who don't approve of his job performance to vote for him again.

The one advantage McConnell has on folks like Hagan and Landrieu is that he's running in a state that clearly favors his party. That suggests that more of the undecided voters might be GOP-leaning.

4) Sampling questions

Republicans and some journalists -- including yours truly -- have questioned the poll's sample, which shows many respondents in each state say they didn't vote in the 2012 presidential election (as many as 32 percent in Arkansas!). And among those who say they did, Obama performs a lot better than he did on Election Day, beating Romney by seven points in North Carolina and somehow running close to even in the other, deep-red states.

Two caveats: First is that people are somewhat bad at remembering or saying who they voted for last time. Second is that these numbers also include unregistered voters, whereas the results described above are only among registered voters.

Even if you adjust for that, though, there are still many people who say they didn't vote in 2012 who are included in the registered voters sample. And, generally speaking, it's very unlikely that people who don't vote in a presidential election will vote in the following midterm.

(As the Times's Jonathan Martin and Megan Thee-Brenan note, the poll also suggests GOP voters are more intense -- something other recent polls have shown too -- so if the sample was reduced to likely voters, the GOP would likely be in better shape.)

Worth noting on all this, though, is that while the numbers show Obama and Romney running close in these states, Obama's approval rating is about where you'd expect it to be in each state:

Arkansas: 33 percent approve/60 percent disapprove

Kentucky: 32/60

Louisiana: 42/54

North Carolina: 41/51

The gay marriage numbers also seem about right, with opponents outnumbering supporters by between 16 and 22 points in Louisiana, Arkansas and Kentucky. Nationally, more Americans support than oppose gay marriage.

So it's not as if the samples in each of these states are vastly more favorable to Obama than you'd expect.

The overall takeaway from these numbers is that Louisiana, North Carolina and Kentucky are about where we thought they would be.

As for Arkansas, we'll have to see if other polling backs up the idea that Pryor is now the favorite.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.



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