NASHVILLE - A longtime pollster for U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander says the Tennessean's campaign isn't worried about two new surveys showing his job-approval rating has dipped below 50 percent among state voters.
"It's not a re-elect number; it's a job-approval number," pollster Whit Ayres said of the surveys. "In a general election electorate in an era where politicians, particularly politicians who serve in Washington, are not particularly popular, I would not make too much of that."
The independent Vanderbilt University poll and the Public Policy Polling survey, which was commissioned by Senate Democratic hopeful Terry Adams, respectively put Alexander's job approval rating at 49 percent and 37 percent.
Both were conducted before Alexander's chief of staff, Ryan Loskarn, was arrested last week on federal charges of possession and distribution of child pornography. Alexander fired the 35-year-old, saying that although Loskarn's guilt or innocence will be determined in court, the charges are "repugnant and disturbing."
The Vanderbilt poll's co-director, political science professor John Geer, indicated it's too early to gauge the impact of the arrest.
"It's a serious, serious thing and the process has to work out," Geer said.
Alexander faces a tea party-backed primary challenge in August from Republican state Rep. Joe Carr, of Lascassas.
Vanderbilt's survey of 860 registered voters, found just 49 percent overall approved the two-term Republican's job performance, but 57 percent of Republicans approved.
The poll's margin of error was 4.1 percent. A Vanderbilt survey in May put Alexander's job approval at 52 percent. Both figures are within the margin of error.
The Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey of 531 "likely" voters was conducted for Adams, a Knoxville attorney. PPP's polling memo described Alexander as "looking weakened." The memo said the poll found 37 percent approved Alexander's performance and 43 percent disapproved.
Republican primary voters gave him a 50 percent favorability rating, with 36 percent rating him unfavorably.
The PPP polling memo said it's overall margin of error was 4.3 percent. The poll "oversampled" Republican voters and has a 5 percent margin of error on responses to questions posed to GOP voters.
Unlike Vanderbilt, PPP said its poll included head-to -head matchups with Alexander against Adams and Carr.
Overall, Alexander led Carr 46 percent to 40 percent. The memo said 61 percent of Republican primary voters don't know enough about Carr to have an opinion, so he "has room to grow v. the incumbent if he can gain name recognition."
The Vanderbilt poll's co-director, Joshua Clinton, told reporters last week that "if you have a good challenger, who can make and highlight the faults or perceived faults of the incumbent, then you can make things interesting."
"Now, whether or not Joe Carr has those characteristics and can attract outside donors, given his low level of awareness and approval, that's hard to see at this point," Clinton said.
In Vanderbilt's poll, 24 percent had some awareness of Carr. Among those who recognized his name, 54 percent approved of him.
The PPP memo said Alexander leads Adams 45 percent to 32 percent in a general election matchup. But it said that after hearing about Adams' background, voters choose Adams over Alexander by 41 percent to 37 percent.
Efforts to reach Adams last week at his law office and by email were unsuccessful.
Ayres said the campaign's own internal polling "is very close to what the Vanderbilt survey is showing." But, Ayres said, the PPP survey is "in a completely different universe."
"I have no idea how they got those numbers using standard polling methodologies," he said.
The PPP polling memo does not list the wording of the questions or in what order they were asked.
Meanwhile, Ayres warned that attempts by candidates to exploit Loskarn's arrest for political advantage will backfire.
"Anybody who tries to turn a personal tragedy into political fodder shows contemptible judgment -- absolutely contemptible judgment," Ayres said. "And it will blow up in their face."
Asked about Loskarn's arrest Friday, Carr called the situation "very tragic."
"For me or anyone in my campaign to comment further than that would be inappropriate. That's all we would have to say on that," he said.
But a relatively unknown Democratic Senate candidate, Larry Crim, is trying to make it an issue. Last week Crim, who came in fourth in Democrats' 2012 U.S. Senate primary and failed in a federal court lawsuit to force a new primary, issued a news release on Alexander and Loskarn.
He said Tennesseans are "distraught and disturbed that their U.S. Senate office has been managed by Alexander's Chief of Staff whose [sic] been arrested on child pornography charges that their senator was not cognizant of the charter [sic] of his closest aide."
Loskarn served as Alexander's Senate chief of staff for two years.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-2550-0550.