Oklahoma is getting ready to enter what may be one of the most volatile election years in state history. With open races for several statewide offices, including the governor, and a populous unhappy with economic conditions and the federal government, voters may see more fist pumping than a Metallica concert.
A new poll gauging public sentiment on nearly everything from political parties to selling water to Texas provides election candidates with a road map to ballot victory.
"It is a conservative, individualistic electorate that continues to be so," said poll analyst Keith Gaddie. "But it is deeply ingrained in the culture of the state."
SoonerPoll.com, run by Shapard Research, surveyed 1,000 likely registered voters statewide between Feb. 25 and March 8. The poll has a 3.1 percent margin of error. For those contemplating a run at political office this year, here are a couple of campaign tips based on the poll: Better do thorough research on autism, and, for God's sakes, limit the booze.
A caring stateOklahoma's public health is a constant topic, with most indicators showing the state as one of the least healthy in the country. Partisan sides are drawing battle lines with a different medical issue.
The state does not require insurance companies to provide medical coverage for autistic children, a growing segment of the population. Debate in the state Legislature has been heated, with attempts to mandate such coverage. The Republican-controlled House and Senate have successfully thwarted all attempts at autism legislation. In fact, a bill has never even made it through either chamber for a vote.
But according to the poll, those opposed to such measures might want to keep their opinion to themselves. SoonerPoll found nearly 80 percent favor requiring health insurance to cover diagnosis and treatment of children with autism.
Gaddie, vice president of Shapard Research, said that number shows the autism side winning the public opinion battle.
"First of all, you have public acceptance that it is a medical condition that is deserving of insurance coverage, and that there is a moral obligation for insurance companies to engage in that type of coverage," said Gaddie, an Oklahoma Gazette commentary writer.
This is some of the best news autism insurance advocate Wayne Rohde has received since taking on the fight. The poll is encouraging, but even he is surprised how much support is out there.
"I was kind of believing 60 percent would be a good number to have," Rohde said. "When we hit higher numbers, it really hit home that it transcends across all political ideologies, economic status and religious views."
Rohde has been pushing Nick's Law on lawmakers, named after his autistic son, Nicholas.
Almost 54 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to vote against a candidate who did not support mandated autism insurance coverage. And 66 percent support a state ballot initiative to make a law requiring coverage.}
This is more ammunition for Rohde. He said his first two options are for insurance companies to start providing coverage on their own, or letting the Legislature adopt a law or put the issue on the November ballot.
But he is prepared to take it to the people.
"If the Legislature keeps turning their backs on the special-needs children, then we have to proceed another action," Rohde said. "That is the signature petition initiative which I believed would be supported by a majority of Oklahomans. We are a very caring state for our neighbors."
While the poll indicates a favorable outcome for Rohde, Gaddie is uncertain if the issue has sustaining power through the fall.
"The thing we don't know is whether or not it is a priority issue for (the public) to go vote," Gaddie said. "But autism is an issue that can hurt a lawmaker if they are too vocal in opposition."
On other medical and health issues, the poll found Oklahomans love federal government-run Medicare, but hate private health insurance companies. Nearly threequarters of respondents have a favorable view of Medicare, while only 33 percent were favorable toward the health insurance industry.
"That is probably the most ironic finding in the survey," Gaddie said. "You've got this electorate which says they don't like big government, but they're saying they like the big national health plan for old people, and they don't like the private medical industry. This has been one of the frustrating ironies in this whole political debate, these (health reform) protestors saying, 'Keep government out of my Medicare.'"
Low-point alcoholJust as there is widespread support for autism insurance coverage, the opposition to selling wine and highpoint alcohol in grocery stores is just as far-reaching. Two questions in the survey put the issue squarely in the status quo box.
Respondents were asked if they supported selling wine and strong beer in grocery and convenience stores. More than 60 percent said "no way." The number was even higher when asked about mail-order alcohol to homes, and the opposition grew to nearly 79 percent.
"Once again, Oklahomans have confirmed what Will Rogers said three-quarters of a century ago: Oklahomans will vote for prohibition so long as they can stagger to the polls," Gaddie said. "It's a mindset this should be a well-controlled substance. They don't care what you drink or how much you drink; they just don't want you to be able to get to it easily."
The "no" votes spanned across almost all demographics with few exceptions: people who rarely or never go to church.
There is some discrepancy in geography. In the rural areas of the state, the difference between opposing and supporting alcohol sales in grocery stores is nearly 40 points, whereas in the Oklahoma City area, the gap is only seven points.
Efforts have been made to change the laws for grocery store sales, but never passed. It doesn't appear that will change for some time.
Mood ringSeveral organizations sponsored some of the questions in the survey.
Queries about alcohol came from liquor wholesalers. A series of questions about the state government's budget problems and education funding were introduced by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.
The conservative think tank wanted to know how Oklahomans would handle the budget crisis. The results were not a revelation to OCPA.
More than 75 percent said cutting government spending should be the first step to solving the budget hole. It was an overwhelming choice" the next closest option was raising taxes and fees, which less than 10 percent approved.
"It shows we're in a recession," said Brandon Dutcher, OCPA vice president of policy. "People are squeezed, and they are saying, 'For crying out loud, don't take anything more from us.'"
Dutcher said most of the polling results did not surprise him, as a majority of respondents favors a smaller government and don't mind laying off government workers.
One question that did bring a jolt dealt with where Oklahomans would cut spending. When voicing their picks of government services, transportation came up as the No. 1 area to cut from " almost 40 percent chose it.
"It did surprise me, given the inroads transportation has made the last few years in bucking up its image and showing the need to fix the crumbling bridges," Dutcher said.
It has been well-reported that Oklahoma has some of the worst roads and bridges in the country.
Transportation barely beat out higher education on the chopping block. Other notable areas to cut were police and prisons (17 percent) and aid to the poor (14 percent).
Options in education also had favorable marks to OCPA. Tax credits and vouchers to send students to private schools gained more than 50 percent support on three questions, including one to fund private education of special-needs children.
"Even people who consider themselves very liberal" support the special needs voucher, Dutcher said.
When it comes to attitudes toward political parties, voters are skeptical of them all. The survey asked for favorable ratings on the Republican and Democratic parties both nationally and statewide. The national Democratic Party fared the worst, gaining only 36 percent approval. The state Republican Party came out the best, with 50 percent approval.
"The fact that you are seeing the state Republican Party with approval is indicative with the political environment and also with the way they positioned themselves," Gaddie said. "It's a states' rights party with a strong inclination toward social conservatism, which is close to the values of Oklahoma voters."
The Oklahoma Democratic Party earned a 43.8 percent approval, just one point ahead of its disapproval mark. Those were similar marks for the national Republican Party.
The survey threw in the Tea Party crowd and found Oklahomans are warm to the movement. The Tea Party had a 43 percent approval, 15 points above its disapproval rating.
"Oklahoma had 'Tea Party' values before the tea parties put their label on it," said Gaddie, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma. "The tea parties are an anti-big government party, but they are also an anti-big business party. They just haven't said it yet. But if you talk to them about the things they distrust, they distrust big government, they distrust big corporations. It's an Oklahoma tradition."
Besides political parties, voters were asked to rate other entities. The American Association of Retired People came out nicely with 55 percent approval, but labor unions and trial lawyers turned up stink bombs.
Neither had approval marks above their disapproval numbers.
"Isn't it interesting that a state with the motto 'labor conquers all things' that people don't like labor unions?" Gaddie said.
On one other topic, voters are split about the Oklahoma Lottery. A little more than 43 percent like the lottery, but 44 percent disapprove.
A dim lightOklahoma voters also are skeptical of the economy. There appears to be little optimism about either the state or national financial climate.
On questions of whether the economy is getting better or worse, the negativity is plain to see: Only 21 percent felt the national economy is getting better, with just 14 percent saying the state's economy is looking up. However, the larger number, 45 percent, said the state's economy is in a holding pattern.
"There is no consensus on the perception of the economy," Gaddie said. "If you go back a few years, you would find strong perceptions of the economy improving, regardless of who was in office."
The same can be said of questions dealing with personal economics.
More than 63 percent said their personal economic situation has not changed.
When it comes to the nation's and state's most pressing problem, the economy still sits at the top, followed by unemployment. But one interesting statistic does crop up: On the question of what national economic issue the respondent considered most concerning personally, the issue at the front of the list was the cost of health care.
It scored one point higher than job opportunities.
Gaddie said that could be the result of the health care debate in Washington, D.C., which has dominated the news recently.
"There is the echo-chamber effect in polling, where people talk about the things that are being talked about," he said.
Other concerning national issues to make the list were the federal budget deficit, energy costs, war, interest rates, gun rights, bank bailouts and the housing market. Issues within the state included corruption, transportation, immigration, crime, teen pregnancy and earthquakes.
For Gaddie, the thing that jumps out about the poll is how the days of the "Oklahoma Democrat" label appear to be gone.
"The state Democratic Party used to rely on this concept of the Oklahoma Democrat as a brand to carry it. That brand has collapsed. That brand is no more popular than the Tea Party, which is not an actual organization. You can't just say, 'I'm an Oklahoma Democrat' and hope to win an election in this state." "Scott Cooper
Other information gathered by the poll: