Former federal judge Brian Sandoval remains the odds-on favorite to win the Republican gubernatorial nomination, but incumbent Gov. Jim Gibbons has managed to cut Sandoval's lead to 14 percentage points just days before the primary election.
A statewide poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research shows likely voters prefer Sandoval to Gibbons by 47 percent to 33 percent, with Gibbons faring especially poorly among women voters. Former North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon was a distant third, receiving support from just 6 percent of respondents.
Although Gibbons appears closer to Sandoval today than he was three weeks ago when a similar poll showed an 18 percentage point gap, at 12 percent the number of undecided voters is smaller than the deficit Gibbons still needs to overcome.
The job gets even tougher for Gibbons considering 38 percent of Republican respondents have an unfavorable view of the incumbent compared to 33 percent who view him favorably.
"When you are an incumbent with a high negative rating, that is almost impossible to overcome," said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon, who conducted the poll for the Review-Journal by phone Tuesday through Thursday.
Sandoval is viewed favorably by 49 percent of Republicans compared with just 15 percent with an unfavorable view.
If Gibbons is to avoid becoming the first Nevada governor to lose a re-election bid in his party's primary, his campaign will have to find a surge of voters who haven't been identified by traditional polling methods.
Gibbons' campaign is betting they'll do just that by working the phones through Tuesday to bring out voters who identify with conservative Tea Party rhetoric, who support the governor's hard-line, anti-tax stances.
"I'm not running from my record, I'm willing to run on my record," Gibbons said Friday of the plan for the remainder of his campaign. "People who run their races based on polls are going to be surprised."
For this most recent poll, Republican-only responses came from 500 likely Republican primary voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points. Responses to questions asked of Republicans, Democrats and independents came from 625 voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The poll also matched Sandoval and Gibbons against presumed Democratic nominee Rory Reid in a sample that included likely Democratic, Republican and nonpartisan voters.
It shows 51 percent of respondents pick Sandoval to 37 percent who choose Reid. Gibbons loses the match-up with Reid 38 percent to 44 percent.
"Sandoval is clearly the strongest candidate statewide," Coker said.
Mike Trask, a spokesman for Reid, said the results are meaningless with nearly six months to go before the election. Trask noted Reid has an estimated $2.6 million in campaign cash on hand to less than $600,000 for Sandoval, an advantage Reid can use to build a strong volunteer organization and communicate his message to voters.
"What we believe is relevant is that Rory Reid has five times as much cash on hand as his nearest possible Republican opponent," Trask said.
Gibbons' strength is with Republican men and people who identify themselves as members of the Tea Party, a label applied to hard-line political conservatives who have rallied against taxes and government expansion.
Among Republican men in the poll, Gibbons is tied at 41 percent with Sandoval. A similar poll three weeks ago showed Sandoval leading Gibbons among men 42 percent to 34 percent.
Among self-proclaimed Tea Party members, in the new poll Gibbons leads Sandoval 42 percent to 36 percent.
"That's where Gibbons' base is, what I think he has left is the most conservative of the party," Coker said.
But Gibbons' advantage in those groups is overwhelmed by a steep disadvantage among women and Republicans who don't consider themselves Tea Party members. Among women Sandoval leads 54 percent to 24 percent, an advantage Gibbons' campaign has no specific plan for attacking.
"We're just targeting voters," Gibbons campaign manager Ron Bath said. "And the voters who are going to vote for Governor Gibbons are really passionate voters, whether they are men or women."
Former Assemblywoman Patty Cafferata, R-Reno, blamed Gibbons' tumultuous personal life for much of his current difficulty in appealing to female voters.
In October 2006, before he was elected governor, Gibbons was accused of accosting a cocktail waitress in the parking garage of a Las Vegas restaurant and bar. It resulted in a police investigation that didn't conclude with criminal charges but did generate a civil lawsuit that continues to dog Gibbons.
That incident and subsequent personal drama during his term as governor, such as the ongoing divorce from first lady Dawn Gibbons and allegations of marital infidelity, would explain the plummeting appeal with women voters, Cafferata said.
"His personal life, I think has probably hurt him with women," she said.
Cafferata, who ran against Gibbons in the 1996 primary for a seat in Congress, said even then Gibbons ran stronger with men than with women.
Cafferata attributed it to a fighter-pilot image and combative rhetoric Gibbons, a former fighter pilot, has made part of his public persona.
"He is the soldier. He is the fighter. Men perhaps relate to that image more than women," she said. "I guess the difference now is it is more lopsided."
The female demographic isn't Gibbons' only challenge. Among Republicans who don't identify themselves as Tea Party members he trails Sandoval 31 percent to 49 percent, according to the Mason-Dixon poll.
The poll also showed the Tea Party demographic in which Gibbons has an advantage is much smaller than the non-Tea Party group, with just 18 percent of Republicans calling themselves members of the Tea Party and 82 percent saying they are not members. However, 64 percent of Republican respondents said they "support the agenda of the Tea Party movement."
Pat Irwin, a county commissioner in rural Pershing County, said rural and conservative voters look past Gibbons' personal problems because they believe he kept his promise to fight tax increases.
"There has been a lot of unfair publicity," said Irwin, who participated in an event Friday with Gibbons at Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas. "You just have to look at what he has done as governor. He has done what he said he would do."
Eric Herzik, a political science professor at University of Nevada, Reno, disagreed. He said Gibbons' high unfavorable rating isn't because of unfair publicity but because most voters, particularly women, just don't like the way he governs.
"His base is kind of that gruff, single-issue male voter," Herzik said. "Women may take in a broader spectrum of issues."
Democratic political consultant Jim Ferrence said statements Thursday from Gibbons on the television show Nevada Newsmakers saying he would celebrate whether he wins or loses and discussing his plans for life after politics show the governor is already making peace with the likelihood he won't win another term, or even advance past his party's primary.
"To concede a week before the election is unheard of," Ferrence said. "He knows what is about to happen."
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@ reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.