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What’s in a poll? Signs of big trouble for Kristi Noem

Kevin Woster

The interview posted above is from SDPB's daily public affairs show, In the Moment with Lori Walsh.

Much of what Gov. Kristi Noem has done lately in her campaign for a second term as South Dakota’s chief executive doesn’t make sense.

Unless, of course, she’s in trouble. A lot of trouble.


Noem was in big trouble at this point in her 2018 campaign against Democratic challenger Billie Sutton. She was in such big trouble, in fact, that she was likely headed for an election loss.

Polling showed it. Noem’s demeanor showed it. Her campaign advertisements showed it.

A call to action from the Republican power structure in South Dakota meant Sen. John Thune and then-Gov. Dennis Daugaard did ads for Noem, and members of their team and other notable Republicans were part of the full-court press on her behalf.

Donald Trump had already come to South Dakota to help Noem with fundraising and campaign energy. Then Mike Pence showed up. So did Republican U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Cory Gardner of Colorado.

Noem unloaded on Sutton with a barrage of nasty campaign ads, and with all that help pulled victory from what appeared to be the jaws of the first Republican defeat in a governor’s race in South Dakota since 1974.

Just barely.

Noem beat Sutton by a bit more than 3 percentage points, 51 percent to 47.6 percent, for the closest win by a Republican governor since 1986.

Now, four years later, with about a month to go in her general-election race against Democrat Jamie Smith, indications are that Noem is not far ahead of where she was at this point late in the 2018 race against Sutton.

If she’s ahead of that at all.

Noem isn’t behind in the polling, as she apparently was at one point late in the campaign against Sutton. But things are closer in the race against Smith than Noem likes or expected. A lot closer.

How close? It’s hard to say. But Lori Walsh broke some pretty important news this week on In the Moment when, during her radio conversations with SDSU Professor David Wiltse, director of the SDSU poll, the professor released just-tabulated survey data that had Noem leading Smith by a mere 3 percentage points, 45 percent to 42 percent.

Of course, the Noem campaign is challenging the validity of the poll. And any poll can be off.

But polling entity at SDSU — which is Noem’s alma mater — is legitimate and credible, as are the people who produce it. So the results are credible, too, if not necessarily conclusive.

And this wasn’t the first time polling in this campaign made the news.

A credible poll and a more nebulous one with similar numbers

A few weeks ago, social media was abuzz with some polling numbers purportedly leaked from the Noem campaign. The numbers being bandied about showed Noem up over Smith by only 2 percentage points, 44 percent to 42 percent.

The Noem campaign disputed the numbers, or at lest disputed their source.

Campaign communications director Ian Fury told long-time reporter Tom Lawrence that the poll numbers being discussed across social media did not come from an internal poll done by the campaign. I guess I tend to believe Fury on what seemed to be a carefully worded response. But what did it mean?

Fury never dismissed the percentages as ridiculous. He never said the percentages were far off from what the campaign’s real internals were showing, as you might expect if they really were far off. And he certainly didn’t release numbers from the campaign’s internals to soundly refute the rumored percentages.

Fury did tell Lawrence this much in the story I read in the Black Hills Pioneer’s online edition: “I can also tell you that those numbers are nowhere close to the enthusiasm we are seeing on the ground.”

Nowhere close to the enthusiasm on the ground? That means, well, just about nothing. Excuse my poor grammar, but perceived enthusiasm ain’t poll numbers.

For his story, Lawrence also interviewed Briggs Warren of Sioux Falls, who published the much-discussed survey data online. Warren, who worked as an intern in the 2018 Sutton campaign, told Lawrence that he got the survey information from someone who told him they got it from Ashley Gustafson, a Noem campaign worker and chair of the South Dakota College Republicans.

So, a source who has a source, sort of. Hmmmm.

When Lawrence talked to Gustafson, she denied sharing or even seeing any internal polling data from the campaign.

I don’t know Warren or Gustafson. But it seems unlikely that Gustafson would be “showing off” a copy of very sensitive campaign polling data in any way, much less in such a loose way that it would end up with Sutton supporters.

That’s especially true if that polling reflected badly on the candidate she was working for.

It also seems unlikely that such sensitive data would be available to staffers outside of the campaign leadership team — especially with a campaign staff and candidate who seem surprisingly disorganized and unsurprisingly overly defensive.

Obviously Noem’s campaign is conducting polls. They have plenty of money for that, just as Sen. John Thune’s reelection campaign has plenty of money for that. I doubt Dusty Johnson is polling, since he doesn’t have plenty of money or any particular reason to poll. His only opponent in November is Libertarian Collin Duprel.

Polls are only snapshots in time, but can be meaningful ones

I mean no disrespect to Duprel, who is likely to do much better than Libertarian candidates usually do. Since there is no Democrat on the ballot for the House seat, some voters who would have voted Democrat will go with Duprel. That could mean he’ll get up into the 20-percent-plus range, instead of a few percentage points. But he’s not a threat to defeat Johnson.

Mike Rounds isn’t up for election until 2026, so I doubt he’s polling.

But polls have been and are being done, including those Thune is doing. So other data is out there. And while I haven’t seen any of that data, my understanding from people I trust is that some of that polling shows Noem with a more comfortable margin than 2 or 3 percentage points. More like double digits.

So which is it? Double digits or two or three percentage points?

Could be both, since polls are snapshots in time and can also vary depending on who does them and how they are framed.

Could this race actually be a dead heat? Who knows? It seems unlikely, but it seemed unlikely a few months ago that any legitimate polling would show it to be close. Real close.

What is clear is that Noem has serious problems. Serious problems late in the campaign, which is a bad time to have them.

Since he announced, I have considered Jamie Smith to be a solid, credible candidate. I don’t think he is quite as strong a candidate as Billie Sutton was, with his compelling life story, established moderate political roots and enough money to compete four years ago with the still-better-funded Noem.

This year, Noem has a ridiculous amont of money. Late last spring she had raised $15 million — quite a bit from out of state -- and had close to 9 million on hand. She has been firing away with ads, and has the bucks to keep firing right up to Election Day.

Smith has very little money. He’s doing what he can with social media and some well-placed, fairly effective TV ads. But he needs money, and a lot more of it. And the window to collect and effectively use it is getting smaller quickly.

In the words of my friend Jeff Fransen, a former Tom Daschle staffer who has worked on Democratic campaigns here and in other states: “Smith should be on the phone the next two weeks doing nothing but dialing for dollars.”

He’ll need them. And the SDSU poll results should help him get them. People are more likely to write checks if they think their candidate has a chance.

Smith could also use a few more chances to spar with Noem in campaign debates. But she only agreed to one. It was last Friday evening. I had just returned from a week away and found our dog sick and our basement flooded, so I didn’t get to sit down for the debate.

Apparently Noem didn’t shine in the debate but that neither did Smith clearly win it.

Why the governor dodges the abortion issue

On a key issue, the governor once again refused to answer a question about whether she would support rape-and-incest exemptions to the state’s abortion ban, which was triggered when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

You’d expect a transparent governor to face that question honestly, rather than beg off until the next legislative session and, more importantly, until after the November election.

Going hard-core pro-life on Fox News is one thing. It’s something else to speak to South Dakotan voters who have shown a willingness to restrict but not ban abortion and clearly support exemptions for rape and incest.

So maybe she’s smart to keep dodging that question. But I have to think it costs her some votes, too.

How much difference do debates make? I’m not sure. But the state would have been better served had Noem agreed to more of them.

Given her problems with ethics issues related to her use of the state airplane and her direct involvement in her daughter’s attempt to get a state appraiser’s license, I can kind of understand why Noem avoided more debates.

Again, however, dodging debates seems to fly in the face of her promise four years ago to be open and transparent.

Noem seems content to run plenty of ads (I like the one with her mom, by the way; it humanizes Noem in a way other ads do not) and pick her spots for public appearances in state. And, of course, she keeps a busy out-of-state schedule, with trips to promote her book, appear at big-money fundraisers, campaign with other Republicans and try to make herself viable as a candidate on the national level.

Some South Dakotans resent all that out-of-state travel. It leaves the impression that her focus is somewhere other than on South Dakota and the many pressing issues facing the state.

And maybe Noem’s focus is scattered, because her campaign seems to have drifted a bit on messaging and on things my pal Fransen likes to call “Campaign 101.”

Take yard signs, for example.

Campaign yard signs and roadside signs might seem superficial and insignificant. They’re not. They carry a message, of course, and promote voter awareness. They are in many ways and many locations the face of a campaign.

But they can also reflect deeper realities of a campaign. And one pretty simple sign of trouble in a campaign is when it struggles to get campaign signs out early, widely distributed and smartly placed. That process involves organization and grassroots work with volunteers that seems to have been lacking in the Noem campaign.

If reflects on the broader organizational structure and so-called “ground game” of the campaign.

Jamie Smith signs seemed to be out well before Noem signs, and in some areas Smith signs far outnumber Noem signs. That appeared to be true in Sioux Falls when I was there recently. And it has been true in Rapid City, including in the West Boulevard area where I live.

Kevin Woster
Jamie Smith got a head start on Kristi Noem in the placement of campaign yard signs, which is more meaningful than some might think.

Smith signs have been out for weeks. Only recently in neighborhoods like mine have Noem signs joined already placed yard signs from other GOP candidates.

Kevin Woster
But the Noem campaign is hustling across the state to catch up on signs and stay ahead in voter surveys.

But Noem has trouble beyond campaign signs.

Tax relief proposal looks like late-in-campaign ploy

Consider Noem’s sudden change of heart on taking the state sales tax off of groceries. It’s not her idea, obviously. And it’s not new. Democrats have promoted the idea of removing the state sales tax on groceries since the 1970s, beginning with a package of tax reform bills presented during the administration of Democratic Gov. Dick Kneip.

Most of those bills didn’t pass, including the food-tax plan. But Democratic state Sen. Homer Kandaras of Rapid City, who served as Senate majority leader, tried several times to persuade lawmakers to remove the state tax on groceries. He was unsuccessful, as were other Democrats who tried and failed to win support for the idea over the years since.

In 2004 proponents of removing the state sales tax from groceries gathered enough signatures to put the issue on the November general-election ballot. But voters rejected it by a 2-to-1 margin.

To my knowledge, Noem has never before shown serious interest in this issue. Now, late in the campaign, she promises voters to make it happen. And unveiling surprise initiatives late in a campaign is likely a sign of trouble. You don’t mess with a campaign that’s going well.

In promising to remove the state’s 4.5 percent sales tax on groceries, Noem is making a promise she can’t keep without the state Legislature’s help. She’s unlikely to get that, and she knows it.

But it’s an opportunity to reach out to families struggling during a period of high inflation. And, in particular, it might play well with young mothers and other women put off by some of Noem’s strident social positions and regular injection of religion into public life.

Abortion is a mixed bag of plus and minuses for Noem. She has been an anti-abortion state legislator and congresswoman and continued that philosophy and rhetoric as governor. When Roe vs. Wade was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year, Noem said she would call a special session to react to the new legal landscape. But she reversed herself a few weeks later, saying a special session wasn’t needed.

That decision might have been simply because she decided the existing “trigger law” in South Dakota was strong enough to carry the state through to the next legislative session at least. Or it might have been because Noem didn’t want to highlight the controversial issue and perhaps lose votes of moderate Republicans and independents in the general election.

I lean toward that second reason.

As I noted above, Noem won’t say whether she supports exemptions to the state’s abortion ban for rape and incest. But the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade has both inspired anti-abortion advocates and enraged pro-choice voters.

It’s a delicate issue in a state that is seen as strongly pro-life, but also one that in 2006 and 2008 rejected proposed abortion bans in statewide votes.

I’ve been especially surprised by the number of Republican women here in Rapid City — which has been a stronghold of support for Noem — who supported her as a U.S. congresswoman but have been turned off by her rhetoric and actions as governor.

Some life-long Republicans I’ve spoken to love Noem, including the way she handled COVID, and they love her freedom-loving rhetoric. Others think her wide-open approach to the virus that killed more than 3,000 South Dakotans was irresponsible. One said she is arrogant and even narcissistic.

Then there’s the bristly relationship Noem has with certain members of the Republican-dominated state Legislature. Those Noem critics likely take their hard feelings back home and share them in their communities, which has to have an effect.

Noem will still win Rapid City and Pennington County, probably by a sizable margin, along with probably two-thirds of the other counties in the state. But Smith, a Sioux Falls native who has been a teacher, wrestling coach and businessman there, is likely to win Sioux Falls and Minnehaha County, perhaps by a wider margin than Billie Sutton did four years ago, while also picking up Hughes County and others with political Demographics, while dominating the Native American vote.

But Smith needs a big win in the state’s largest city to have a chance to beat the incumbent.

Will unhappy Republicans come home for Noem again this year?

Historically, even Republicans who have been critical of or dissatisfied with one of their own have tended to come home on election day. Many did that for Noem in 2018. Will they do it again in 2022? Probably.

I’m inclined to think Noem would get a majority of the undecideds.

But that’s not certain. This election will be a referendum on Noem, much as the 2020 presidential election was a referendum on Donald Trump. If that’s true, the majority of undecideds could swing Smith’s way.

Voters are just getting to know Smith. Most voters already know Noem, and have formed pretty strong opinions on her, one way or another.

When the rumored poll results leaked or were intentionally released a few weeks ago, I doubted that the race could be that close. I still have my doubts. I think I learned not to underestimate Noem when she beat incumbent Democratic Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth.

But the SDSU poll this week certainly has me wondering.

Even if the results are an accurate reflection of voter sentiment now, things could change a lot by the time votes are counted. A month can be a lifetime in a political campaign, especially near the end. Ask former Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, who appeared to be coasting to a relatively comfortable reelection in 2002 a month before the election.

But things tightened quickly and Johnson squeaked through with a 524-vote win over Republican John Thune, who would run again two years later and defeat powerful Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle.

Even successful South Dakota Democrat politicians (Remember when we used to have a few of them?) lived a risky game of political survival. And the political landscape of the state has only gotten tougher for Democrats.

As an incumbent Republican in a deep-red state, Noem has advantages that should be decisive — most notably plenty of campaign money and a 141,000 edge in registered Republican voters over Democrats.

The same SDSU poll that shows Noem in a tight race against Smith shows incumbent Republican John Thune up by 20 percentage points against Democratic challenger Brian Bengs. Given all the advantages that she has, that’s about where you’d expect Noem to be on the same survey. So something real is going on.

I still expect Noem to win. But right now she seems to be in trouble. Big trouble.


Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.