For months the EB-5 foreign investor program didn’t seem to be on the minds of South Dakota voters. The Nielsen Brothers Polling results released Monday night now suggest it is. Granted, this is one poll, conducted Sept. 21-25, but the numbers are significant far beyond any potential margin of error. According to NBP, 37 percent of the respondents have a negative view of EB-5 while 14 percent expressed a favorable view. Another 13 percent weren’t sure. The second-largest bloc, 35 percent, hadn’t heard of EB-5. That meant, as absentee voting began Sept. 19, two of three potential voters in South Dakota were aware of EB-5.
Will it affect the U.S. Senate contest? That is the question facing the Republican nominee, former Gov. Mike Rounds. His administration made EB-5 a secret piece of its economic development strategy, especially starting in about 2008 through 2010, when the emphasis shifted from small dairy development to big projects attracting hundreds of South Korean and Chinese investors at $500,000 apiece. The NBP survey found 44 percent of the respondents said EB-5 wouldn’t affect their voting, while 30 percent said it would and 26 percent weren’t sure.
NBP didn’t specifically ask about EB-5 in its July 23-28 survey, so we can’t make any observations about how EB-5 might fit into the voters’ opinions about the four candidates for U.S. Senate.
What has happened, according to NBP, was Rounds stayed in the lead but didn’t gain. He was at 42.9 percent in July and 39.4 in September. Likewise, Democratic candidate Rick Weiland was at 30.2 in July and 25.7 in September. The margins between Rounds and Weiland remained roughly the same (12.7 in July and 13.7 in September).
The new factor was independent Larry Pressler, the former Republican. Pressler was the U.S. senator from 1979 through 1996, when he lost to Democratic challenger Tim Johnson. Pressler was at 14.2 percent in NBP’s July poll and rose to 23.7 in the September poll.
NBP found Pressler’s support in the September poll came from 46 percent Republicans, 38 percent Democrats and the remainder independents or other parties.
Rounds meanwhile had a base of 83 percent Republicans, 10 percent Democrats and the remainder independents and others.
Weiland’s support was 71 percent Democrats, 12 percent Republicans and 18 percent independents and others.
Pressler’s cross-party appeal and the single-party candidacies of Rounds and Weiland were generally consistent with the same broad appeal he showed in the Survey South Dakota polling results released earlier in September for the Aberdeen American News, KSFY TV and KOTA TV.
The fourth candidate in the Senate contest, independent Gordon Howie, showed little movement from July to September in NBP’s surveys. Howie, a former Republican and a former legislator, was at 4.1 percent in July and 3.6 percent in September.
Undecideds were 8.6 percent in July and 7.2 percent in September. Those results suggest there aren’t enough unattached voters to swing the outcome by themselves.
Instead the race is at zero-sum status, where one candidate’s gain comes at the loss for another candidate. There seems to have been some of that shifting from July to September in favor of Pressler drawing equally from Rounds and Weiland.
It’s increasingly clear, because their supporters are so heavily tilted to their respective political parties, that Rounds and Weiland aren’t going to strip voters from each other. Pressler would need to reach at least 35 percent to be in position to overtake Rounds. That would mean pulling an additional 5 to 6 percent from Rounds and 5 to 6 percent from Weiland in the five to six weeks left in the campaign.
Can Pressler get to 35 percent? Anything can happen but consider this: Rounds would be at or below 35 percent and Weiland would be in the lower 20s. There are two reasons I don’t think those low levels of support would occur for Rounds and Weiland.
In the case of Weiland, it seems unlikely that thousands more Democrats are going to defect to Pressler, after they voted against Pressler in 1996 to elect Johnson. The key for Johnson in 1996 was the Democrats’ get out the vote effort. Pressler didn’t match it and Johnson won. Now Johnson is retiring. Weiland ran when no other Democrat would. Behind the scenes Democrats knew they probably couldn’t keep the seat.
Then there is this question: Who has the get out the vote effort this time? The answer, based on the June primary, is Rounds. He had some powerful showings in counties where there happened to be strongly contested Republican legislative primaries. The Rounds campaign heading into November undoubtedly benefited from the June test run of its GOTV efforts in the primary. Weiland didn’t have a test run and probably doesn’t have the money for GOTV that Rounds has for the general election. Pressler, pouring the little money he can raise into his ads, probably won’t have a GOTV effort.
With early voting under way via absentee ballots, Rounds likely is already building up his lead. Every ballot cast early is one that can’t be changed if some news breaks, such as on EB-5.