U.S. Sen. Harry Reid and GOP challenger Sharron Angle tied with 43 percent of the vote in a new poll that suggests most Nevadans won't gamble on half a dozen other little known contenders.
The survey -- the first to test the strength of all the contenders -- showed the field drawing negligible support away from Tea Party darling Angle or from Reid, even with another self-described "Tea Party" candidate in the general election race.
The poll for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and 8NewsNow also found nonpartisan voters breaking Angle's way, giving her a 20-point lead over Reid among these Nevadans who are likely to determine the outcome of the high stakes race.
"The independents have shifted to her by the biggest margin since the primary," said Brad Coker of Mason Dixon Polling & Research, which conducted the survey. "If she goes on to win this, maybe this is the first sign that at the end of the day Angle might nose it out."
For now, however, the race remains a dead heat with Reid and Angle at 43 percent support each in the latest Mason-Dixon poll taken Monday through Wednesday. In its previous poll two weeks ago, Reid edged by Angle 46-44, but without naming all other candidates and with 6 percent undecided.
In the new telephone survey of 625 Nevada voters statewide, people were asked who they would vote for if the election "were held today." Support broke down this way:
■ 43 percent for Reid, Democrat.
■ 43 percent for Angle, Republican.
■ 1 percent for Scott Ashjian, Tea Party.
■ 1 percent for Tim Fasano, Independent American Party.
■ 4 percent for "none of these" candidates.
■ 8 percent undecided.
Four nonpartisan candidates named in the survey didn't register support from voters, including Michael Haines, Jesse Holland, Jeffrey Reeves and Wil Stand.
The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Ashjian is listed as the "Tea Party" candidate because he registered the party this year to take advantage of the movement. The movement's members and leaders, who haven't launched any formal political party nationally or in Nevada, have denounced the Las Vegas businessman as a poseur, but have failed to legally remove him from the ballot. Ashjian could siphon votes from Angle, who has broad Tea Party backing on the local and national levels, and he could be a spoiler if the race is recount close.
The Senate election is considered a referendum on the unpopular incumbent Reid. He's hoping to eke out a slim victory by attacking the staunch conservative Angle as too extreme and driving the anti-Reid vote to other candidates on the crowded ballot or to the unique "none" category.
To some extent, the strategy is working. But the poll also suggests that more nonpartisans "are buying the throw the bums out argument," said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
"They're fickle folks," Damore said of independents who often make up their minds late. "They're usually going to swing with the national forces, which are against Reid and the Democrats this year."
According to the poll, both Reid and Angle enjoy fairly strong support from their bases -- 82 percent for Reid from Democrats and 79 percent for Angle from Republicans.
Angle is far ahead of Reid among voters not aligned with either party, however, winning 51 percent support compared with 31 percent for Reid in the full ballot test. That's double the spread in the previous Mason-Dixon poll, with Angle leading Reid 42-33 among nonpartisans two weeks ago.
That still leaves plenty of independents up for grabs, including 6 percent who are undecided, 5 percent who picked "none," 4 percent for Ashjian and 3 percent for Fasano. (In the polling sample, nonpartisans made up 16 percent, about the same as registered Nevada voter rolls.)
In typical elections, incumbents such as Reid usually have the advantage because of name recognition and voter familiarity. But the Senate majority leader is highly unpopular: More than half of Nevada voters, or 54 percent, have an unfavorable view of him, according to the new poll. Another 39 percent view him favorably and 7 percent were neutral. Two weeks ago, he was at 52-41.
Angle's ratings haven't changed much over the past couple months despite the pounding she has taken by Reid in TV ads, which drove up her negatives right after she won the GOP primary on June 8. Now, 47 percent view her unfavorably, 35 percent favorably and 18 percent have a neutral opinion. That compares to 46-35 two weeks ago and 47-38 at the end of July. (The month before the primary, Angle's favorable/unfavorable/neutral ratings were 29/23/32, and 16 percent didn't even know her name.)
Angle has tried to keep the focus of her campaign on the economy, blaming Reid for the state's record unemployment rate of 14.4 percent and record home foreclosure and bankruptcy rates.
In her latest line of attack, her ads have focused on Reid's support for legislation that could lead to U.S. citizenship for immigrants now working illegally in the country, taking jobs from some Americans.
"Harry Reid, the best friend illegals have ever had," says a new Angle ad out Thursday.
The new commercial highlights the so-called DREAM Act that Reid failed this week to attach to a defense authorization bill. The act would open the door to citizenship for immigrants brought into the country illegally as children -- if they serve in the military or attend college for two years.
(Reid's campaign has called the ad "more unsubstantiated lies," saying, for instance, that Reid never voted to give special tax breaks to illegal immigrants.)
Reid's effort to pass the act helps him fire up and gain more support from his Democratic Party base and from Hispanics, who make up one-quarter of Nevada's population of nearly 3 million.
The new poll confirms this is a popular issue for Reid, with 73 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Hispanics supporting the DREAM Act, the survey found. Among Republicans, 74 percent oppose the legislation. More than half of men oppose it, while more than half of women support it, reflecting a gender gap that's a feature of the race with more males backing Angle and more females supporting Reid.
Overall, however, Nevada voters are divided with 46 percent supporting the DREAM Act, 45 percent opposed and 9 percent undecided.
On another top issue that plays in Reid's favor, 58 percent of voters are opposed to "eliminating" the Department of Education" -- something Angle has called for, arguing its mandates haven't improved schools or student performance. Another 33 percent support the idea and 9 percent are undecided.
Angle, a former teacher, has since softened her stance and called for cutting funding for the Education Department by 5 percent in a plan to shrink federal government and send money back to states. The issue breaks down along party lines as well, with 88 percent of Democrats opposed to getting rid of the department, while 54 percent of Republicans favor the plan. Nonpartisan voters are divided, with 44 percent in favor, 41 percent opposed and 15 percent undecided.
The Reid campaign was pleased by the polling results, noting that outside organizations that have been targeting Reid in negative ads haven't helped Angle.
"Despite months of false attacks and flat-out lies by Sharron Angle, Karl Rove's front group, and others, Sharron Angle's badly-splintered campaign hasn't been able to gain any momentum," Reid campaign spokesman Jon Summers said in a statement.
Jarrod Agen, communications director for Angle's campaign, said the poll findings suggest nonpartisan voters will get behind the former Reno assemblywoman come Election Day. But he acknowledged Angle will have to beat back any Reid attempt to splinter the anti-incumbent vote.
"We're going to be driving the message home that any vote that's not for Sharron Angle is a vote for Harry Reid," Agen said in an interview. "And if voters aren't happy with what's happening in Washington, D.C., they're going to vote for Sharron Angle. I think as you get closer and closer to the election, independents are going to break against the incumbents. Reid has been there a long time."
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.