Governor race depends on turnout, independents
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber enjoys high name recognition among likely voters, but that's not necessarily a disadvantage for Chris Dudley, his opponent in Oregon's 2010 gubernatorial race, according to a pollster.
About 90 percent of Oregon voters recognize Kitzhaber's name, but roughly half of them have an unfavorable view of the former governor, said Mike Riley, president of the Riley Research Associates polling firm.
Riley said the two candidates are currently in a statistical dead heat, with Democrat Kitzhaber narrowly leading Republican Dudley 40 percent to 39 percent among likely voters.
Only 5 percent of likely voters favor other candidates, while 16 percent haven't decided whom to support, he said.
"Those are the ones in the middle, those are the ones who are going to make a difference," Riley said during the recent Oregon Association of Nurseries convention in Bend, Ore.
Riley's most recent poll indicated that independent voters slightly favor Kitzhaber, which was surprising because other polls have pointed to the opposite. Independents typically lean to the conservative side, he said.
"My guess is these 16 percent of undecided voters think they might like Dudley, but they're not sure," Riley said.
The election is unlikely to be affected by a third-party candidate who could divert substantial numbers of votes from either Kitzhaber or Dudley, he said. Not a single third-party candidate is expected to garner more than 1 percent of the vote.
"Things appear to be neck-and-neck, which they haven't been for many years," Riley said.
The two candidates are roughly tied among middle-aged voters, but Dudley performs better among older ones, he said. Younger voters heavily favor Kitzhaber, but it's unclear how much that will help him in 2010, Riley said.
Compared to 2008, there generally hasn't been as much excitement among younger voters during this election season, he said. "There's no Obama factor."
Labor unions, which also traditionally support Democrats, have been "playing hard to get" with Kitzhaber, who did not always support them as governor, Riley said.
Dudley has raised roughly $4.5 million for his campaign, compared to Kitzhaber's $2.5 million, he said.
It remains to be seen how much energy the unions will expend to drive voter turnout for Kitzhaber -- such organizational efforts have typically been a strength for Democrats, he said.
Enthusiasm has generally been more visible among conservatives this year, as evidenced by the Tea Party movement, Riley said.
Overall dissatisfaction with the Democrat-led federal government also works in the favor of Republicans, with roughly two-thirds of people saying the U.S. is heading in the wrong direction, he said.
"It's kind of a traditional thing to blame the people in power, whether they're responsible or not," Riley said.
Even so, Democrats outnumber Republicans in Oregon, so Dudley will have to depend on a 5 percent higher turnout among conservatives just to have a level playing field, he said.
"The get-out-the-vote factor is going to be everything," Riley said.