NASHVILLE — Bill Haslam leads his rivals for the Republican nomination for governor by double digits, but 17 percent of voters statewide still are undecided on their Aug. 5 choice, according to a new poll conducted for the Tennessee Newspaper Network.
The Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey found 36 percent of 400 likely Republican primary voters saying they support Knoxville Mayor Haslam, who has dominated fundraising and television advertising in the contest.
That compares with 25 percent who supported U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., a Chattanoogan. Another 20 percent chose Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, the state Senate speaker.
Ninety-one percent of likely Republican voters recognize Mr. Haslam and Rep. Wamp while only 79 percent recognized Lt. Gov. Ramsey.
Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon, said Mr. Haslam has a “decent lead,” but he noted the contest remains volatile as charges and countercharges fly.
“Things can happen fast if bad news comes out,” Mr. Coker said. “I wouldn’t hand it to him (Haslam) unless we were taking this poll the Friday before the primary.”
The survey, conducted Monday through Wednesday, had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.
Mr. Haslam led in East Tennessee with 43 percent of voters. Lt. Gov. Ramsey was on top in Middle Tennessee with 35 percent.
Mr. Haslam also had the most support — 28 percent — in West Tennessee. But West Tennessee also held the largest percentage of undecided Republican voters at 29 percent.
Mr. Coker said West Tennessee appears “wide open,” but he cautioned the margin of error in any subcategory of voters is above 5 percent.
The poll showed that Lt. Gov. Ramsey, who courted the tea party vote, has the backing of 43 percent of it. But again, the margin of error in subcategories is higher.
Democratic candidate Mike McWherter, a Jackson businessman, faces no opposition in his primary.
Mr. Haslam said Saturday the Mason-Dixon survey mirrors the campaign’s polling except his figures “show a little bit more of a lead.”
Calling himself “gratified” by the support, the mayor said, “If you look at those folks expressing a preference, being ahead of your nearest competitor by double digits is a pretty resounding message.”
He said he intends to continue to push “key issues” such as job creation and “pulling Tennessee from the bottom of education ranks” in the final days.
Rep. Wamp said the contest “is very fluid.”
“The interesting thing to me is that Haslam has probably spent $4 (million) or $5 million since the last survey and if anything, he’s going down, not up,” Rep. Wamp said.
He also argued the survey doesn’t reflect “intensity and turnout” and added that there are “places in this state that are voting heavily for me.”
Lt. Gov. Ramsey said the poll indicates “exactly what we’re showing. I’ve been rising for the past two or three weeks.”
“Zach Wamp hasn’t moved from Day One,” Lt. Gov. Ramsey said, noting the two are now “statistically in a dead heat.”
He said his recent “comparative” television ad criticizing Mr. Haslam’s record has made voters “realize Haslam’s not the true conservative in this race and Zach Wamp can’t say, ‘I’m from Washington and I’m here to help’ this election cycle.”
Dayton, Tenn., poll participant Robert Lewis, 82, said he is backing Rep. Wamp.
“He’s just been pretty reliable for a few years in Congress,” said Mr. Lewis, a Tennessee Valley Authority retiree. “We got to know him real well up in Dayton. He comes up frequently.”
Joan Farrell, 57, of Hixson, said she is “leaning toward Bill Haslam.”
“I’m not entirely decided at this point. He appears to have a good record in Knoxville,” she said.
Frank Roberts, 36, of Old Hickory in Middle Tennessee, said he likes Lt. Gov. Ramsey’s Tennessee-based experience in the General Assembly and chose him in early voting.
“I feel he’s a little more down-home,” Mr. Roberts said. “Haslam feels elitist. He’s a big businessman. Business is fine, but I’m more interested in someone looking out for the little guy. Wamp, he’s been in Congress. Again, he’s too tainted by Washington.”
The Mason-Dixon sampling was expanded to 625 voters, including Democrats, for the Nov. 2 general election and other issues beyond the GOP primary.
Voters preferred Mr. Haslam to Mr. McWherter, 49 percent to 31 percent with 20 percent undecided.
Rep. Wamp also dominated Mr. McWherter, 45 percent to 38 percent with 17 percent undecided.
Lt. Gov. Ramsey polled 43 percent compared with Mr. McWherter’s 38 percent, with 19 percent undecided.
“Part of the reason for that is McWherter’s name identification is lower than Wamp and Haslam. It’s about the same as Ramsey’s,” said Mr. Coker, who said the state also is turning more Republican.
McWherter spokesman Shelby White said that “despite spending millions of campaign dollars on television advertising, including hundreds of thousands of dollars from his big oil wealth, Tennesseans are not buying into Bill Haslam.”
He said that on the other hand, “this poll shows that Mike McWherter is right in the middle of this race without having spent a single dime on advertising to date.”
Nora Conaway, of Memphis, a Democrat, said she intends to vote for Mr. McWherter.
“He’s OK,” she said, but added: “I’m afraid he doesn’t have any chance of winning.”
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Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...