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New polling indicates tight race in West Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary

CHARLESTON — As voters across West Virginia return absentee ballots and head out for early voting, a new poll shows the race for the Democratic primary for governor tightening up while Gov. Jim Justice maintains a comfortable lead.

The interactive voice response poll was paid for by WMOV 1360 AM based in Jackson County and conducted by Triton Polling and Research based in La Pine, Ore.

The poll of the Democratic primary for governor took place between May 18 and May 19 using automated telephone responses. The poll includes 231 likely Democratic voters with a margin of error of 6.4 percent and a confidence level of 95 percent with weighting applied for age and gender.

Respondents were asked if the Democratic primary were held today with the current slate of five candidates, for whom would they vote. According to the results, Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango leads with 30.2 percent, followed by community organizer Stephen Smith with 27.3 percent and Boone County Sen. Ron Stollings with 9.5 percent.

Smith, who was the first candidate in the race in 2018 openly campaigning for governor, said the WV Can’t Wait coalition of volunteers, county and constituent captains, and like-minded down-ballot candidates has been working every angle to get voter support. Smith thinks that work will pay off on June 9.

“We’ve got 764 volunteers statewide phoning, texting, mailing, and talking to their neighbors passionately about the only campaign that won’t take money from corporate lobbyists, the only campaign with policy plans written by West Virginians,” Smith said. “We like our chances.”

Grant Herring, campaign manager for Salango, said their internal polling shows different numbers, but confirms that momentum is with them.

“Private polling shows Ben Salango with a larger lead, but these new numbers confirm our campaign is winning and has the momentum in the home stretch,” Herring said. “The big takeaway from this poll is that the undecided voters are leaning heavily toward Salango. It’s because he has a record of getting things done and 26 endorsements from organized labor and first responders.”

In a statement released by the Stollings campaign, it disputed the validity of the poll, which had a small sample size and was conducted by calling landlines. It believes the campaign is closer than the poll numbers suggest.

“Frankly, we are surprised that anyone would do a story about an unscientific poll with a high margin of error and only counts voters with landline phones. The poll misses everyone who uses a cell phone, which is everyone,” the campaign said. “Our internal polling shows this is a close race and that it will come down to the candidate who can connect with voters on issues related to COVID-19, opioids, the economy and education. That person is Dr. Ron Stollings. He’s the right person at the right time for West Virginia.”

Rounding out the bottom was former Pleasants County economic development official Jody Murphy with 2.9 percent and Douglas Hughes with 1.3 percent. Another 28.9 percent of respondents said they were not sure or did not know who they would support. Of those in the not sure/don’t know category, 11.1 percent said they were leaning towards Salango, followed by Stollings with 6.2 percent and Smith with 5.2 percent, while 72.5 percent remained unsure.

For the Republican primary for governor, Triton conducted its poll of 719 likely Republican voters between May 18 and May 26. The poll has a margin of error of 3.7 percent and 95 percent confidence level.

When asked what candidate respondents would support if the election were today, Justice led the pack with 53.4 percent, followed by former Berkeley County lawmaker Mike Folk at 14.8 percent, and former Commerce Department secretary Woody Thrasher with 13.9 percent. Other candidates included Doug Six at 2 percent, Shelby Fitzhugh at 1.8 percent, Brooke Lunsford with 1.2 percent and Charles Sheedy with 0.6 percent.

Justice, speaking as he left the State Capitol Building Wednesday, said the Triton poll matches his campaign’s internal polling and hopes Republican and unaffiliated voters will select him as their candidate.

“All our polling tells us the same thing, it’s about a 40-percent difference,” Justice said. “We’ll see, but I am very, very hopeful that it ends up that way and everything, but we’re going to leave it up to West Virginians.”

Of those polled, 12.2 percent remained unsure or didn’t know whom they would support. Of that number, 12.2 percent said they were leaning towards Thrasher, 11.8 percent were leaning towards Justice, 5.1 percent were leaning towards Folk, and 68.9 percent remained unsure or didn’t know.

The Thrasher campaign declined to comment on the poll. Speaking Wednesday by phone, Folk encouraged other candidates in the race to rally around him over the next two weeks

“The only way to finish strong is to support me,” Folk said. “The only tally that matters is the final tally on election night, but it’s clear from that poll that I am the only viable option if you want to beat Justice.”

Folk said that Justice’s lead is artificial due to his daily coronavirus briefings from the Capitol. Justice has live-streamed his briefings nearly every day since March 11 with reporters participating virtually.

“The reality is for the last six weeks that Justice has used the statewide briefings for propaganda,” Folk said. “He is basically campaigning on the state’s dime. He is literally using taxpayer funding.”

The Triton polls also included a question about President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. Of the likely Democratic voters asked, 66 percent had a very unfavorable opinion, while 15.5 percent had a very favorable opinion. Of likely Republican voters polled, 81 percent had a very favorable opinion, while 3.8 percent had an unfavorable opinion.

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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