Early poll shows small lead for Heller, also a warning

As the 2012 Nevada race for U.S. Senate begins to take early shape, a poll released today shows Republican Dean Heller with a small lead over Democrat Shelley Berkley.

But the numbers gathered by Public Policy Polling also contains a warning sign for Heller, according to pollster Tom Jensen.

The poll is the first public measure of the race since Berkley and Heller, both U.S. House members, became candidates to replace Sen. John Ensign. The survey showed Heller up 47-43, with the margin of error plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

"Shelley Berkley’s come out of the gate a lot stronger than Dean Heller since John Ensign officially announced he wasn’t going to run again," said PPP president Dean Debnam. "It should be a very competitive race."

The poll is here.

The analysis is here.

Ensign announced March 7 he was not running for re-election, and then last Thursday said he was resigning altogether.

Heller announced his candidacy on March 15. Berkley announced on April 14. The automated poll of 491 Nevada voters was conducted last Thursday to Sunday.

Heller is expected to be appointed to the Senate this week by Gov. Brian Sandoval to fill Ensign’s vacancy, which figures to give him a leg up for the 2012 race.

But maybe not, Jensen said in a blog. He said 53 percent of Nevadans polls think Ensign’s seat should be filled by a special election, while only 44 percent agree that Sandoval should fill the vacancy.

"Democrats will certainly try to make a Heller appointment smell bad and these numbers suggest that they have the public behind them in their opposition to Sandoval giving Heller a head start," Jensen said.

And since Berkley got in the race, Heller’s numbers among Democrats have tumbled. In a January poll, Heller drew 22 favorability from Dem voters, while the most recent numbers show him at 16 percent favorable.

Heller’s lead can be explained by strong support among independent voters, the firm said. He also enjoys a unified support among Republicans of 86 percent while by comparison 76 percent of Democrats say they are already committed to Berkley.

Public Policy Polling is a North Carolina-based Democratic polling company although it notes that one expert, Nate Silver of the New York Times, found its 2010 polls to exhibit a slight GOP bias.

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