An odd thing has happened in the Nebraska Senate race over the last 9 months. Ben Nelson, already unpopular in January with a 39/50 approval rating, has become even more unpopular. 36% of voters now give him good marks to 55% who disapprove. That ties him with John McCain for the most unpopular out of 87 sitting Senators PPP has done approval polls on.
When we polled the state in January Nelson trailed Jon Bruning by 11 points at 50-39. So you would expect with Nelson's numbers worsening that he would have an even bigger deficit against Bruning now. Here's the thing though- Bruning's image has taken an even bigger hit over the course of 2011 than Nelson's has. Early in the year 42% of voters in the state had a favorable opinion of Bruning to 26% with a negative one for a +16 spread. Now Bruning is at a -6 spread with just 32% of voters giving him good marks and 38% rating him negatively- so he has dropped 22 points in the last 9 months, much worse than the 8 point decline in Nelson's favorability spread.
What does it all add up to? Nelson has pulled to within 4 points of Bruning and now trails him only 46-42, representing a 7 point improvement for the incumbent since our poll of the state earlier in the year. Nelson actually leads 49-29 with independents. And he's picking up a pretty healthy 19% of the Republican vote, although he may need more than that to win. The big problem for Nelson is that he's losing 13% of the Democratic vote to Bruning. Democrats running statewide don't have a lot of margin for error in GOP heavy Nebraska and it's going to be hard for Nelson to survive without a more unified base than that.
When you compare the numbers from January to now for the other Republican contenders you see the extent to which Bruning's decline is unique to Bruning. Don Stenberg led Nelson by 4 points at 45-41, now he leads by 3 points at 44-41, basically identical numbers. Deb Fischer has improved her standing against Nelson- she trailed him by 7 points in January at 42-35, but now is down by just 2 at 41-39. And Pat Flynn has seen a nominal improvement in his standing as well. He trailed by 9 points at 42-33 last winter but is now down just 7 at 43-36. The Stenberg/Fischer/Flynn triumvirate is on average doing 2 points better against Nelson than last January, while the front runner Bruning is doing 7 points worse.
It still looks like an uphill battle for Nelson- it's never easy to win if you're one of the most unpopular Senators in the country. But Bruning has been weakened so much over the course of 2011 that there's a ray of hope for Nelson that might not have existed earlier this year. It's the Harry Reid plan for an unpopular incumbent- make your opponent even more unpalatable than you. That's not an easy thing to pull off but Nelson's headed in the right direction.
Full results here