Does Sen. Mike Lee Need to Move to the Political Center?

Most of Sen. Mike Lee’s support is concentrated on the political right – which could pose a problem for him in 2016.

Even though the latest Zions Bank/Utah Policy poll conducted by Dan Jones/Cicero Group oly covered voters in Utah’s 4th Congressional District, we can surmise that Sen. Lee’s approval ratings among independent voters, and those in the political middle, leave something to be desired.

Just 35% of independent voters in our survey said they approve of the job Sen. Lee is doing, compared with 60% who disapprove.

Among Republicans, Lee is riding high. 71% of GOP voters in the 4th District approve of the job he’s doing while just 20% disapprove.

Don’t even ask about Democrats. Just 4% of Utah’s minority party approve of Lee’s performance while 88% disapprove.

Lee is extremely popular among Tea Party voters. 93% of those who say they are part of the Tea Party approve of the job Lee is doing. However, among those who are not part of the right-wing movement Lee does not fare as well. Just 40% of non-Tea Party voters approve of the job he’s doing while 51% do not.

The biggest base of support for Lee is among conservative voters. Those who say they are “very conservative” approve of Lee’s work by an 83-9% margin. “Somewhat conservative” voters also approve, but not as strongly (57-33%). Moderates disapprove of Lee strongly (61-29%), while liberals don’t agree with him at all.

Lee’s problems among independents may speak to lingering bad feelings from his leading role in the 16-day government shutdown from last year. A poll from October of last year pegged Lee’s approval rating at just 41%, while 50% disapproved. Lee has rebounded a bit from those numbers (at least in Utah’s 4th District) – 46% approve and 45% disapprove of his job performance.

What all this points to is Lee’s base of political support lies primarily among the right-wing voters of Utah. He enjoys strong support among Republicans, the Tea Party and those who say they are “very conservative.” As you move toward the center of the political axis, his support begins to drop rapidly. “Very conservative” voters give him a net positive approval rating of 74-points, but among “somewhat conservative” voters, his net approval rating is a net positive of just 24-points. That suggests, if he wants to broaden his support, Lee will have to start making inroads with moderate Republicans and independent voters.

Finding a way to appeal to the middle may be key to Lee’s political survival. It is widely suspected that he could face multiple challenges from within his own party in 2016. Lee probably won’t be able to fend off a challenge by exclusively relying on a coalition made up of right-wing voters – especially if someone who could bring together a broad base of support among moderates and independents decides to get in the race.

There’s probably not enough votes among Tea Party and very conservative Utahns to assure Lee’s continued tenure in office. If he wants a second term, he will most likely have to start reaching out to moderates and independents. Lucky for him, he’s got two years to make that happen.