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Deepening Partisan Polarization on Most Political Figures in South Dakota

The South Dakota COVID-19 Family Impact Survey 2021 was conducted from July 31 to Aug. 14, 2021 by The South Dakota Polling Project, a research group housed in the School of American and Global Studies at South Dakota State University. This survey builds upon similar surveys conducted by The South Dakota Polling Project in October 2020 and April 2021. In this poll, a total of 573 registered voters in South Dakota completed our survey about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their daily lives. The margin of error of this survey was +/- 4 %, on par with other state-wide polls.

Support of Major Political Figures in South Dakota

“Feelings Thermometers” are a commonly used and intuitive measure used by political scientists to measure support of a wide variety of subjects - including individual political leaders. A score of 0 indicates the coldest feelings towards the subject, 100 the warmest feelings, with 50 representing neutrality. The results of our latest survey are largely congruent with what we’d expect from a heavily Republican state like South Dakota. For reference, Donald Trump won just over 61% of the vote in both 2016 and 2020. President Biden’s thermometer rating is statistically unmoved since our last poll at 37, virtually the same as his take in the 2020 election here of 35.6%. President Trump’s rating is also unmoved from our previous polls at 42. We continue to see a gap between Rep. Dusty Johnson and the other Republican office holders. Johnson’s rating is at 54, while Gov. Noem (48), Sen. Thune (48) and Sen. Rounds (46) are statistically tied with one another several points behind.

Bar graph showing feelings among South Dakota registered voters feelings of current office holders. Johnson’s rating is at 54, while Noem 48, Thune 48 and Rounds 46. Biden ranked lowest at 37.

Republican Respondents Still Show Highest Support for Governor Noem and President Trump

As a de facto single party state, most political competition of relevance takes place within the Republican party. Most threats to the electoral safety of our incumbents will likely come from their own ranks in the form of primary challenges. Research shows that Republican incumbent threat perception is focused on primary challenges from the right, whereas Democratic incumbent threat perception is from the center. As such, it is important to track support for incumbents within the party. Both Trump and Noem have maintained their popularity within Republican ranks, and receive the greatest support with thermometer scores of 77 and 72, respectively. This puts Noem a full 11 points above the congressional delegation. Johnson, Thune, and Rounds are statistically indistinguishable from one another with scores of 66, 65, and 64, respectively. Not surprisingly President Biden trails far behind with a rating of 11.

bar chart showing thermometer rating of Biden 11, Rounds 64, Thune 65, Johnson 66, Noem 77 and Trump 72 amongst Republicans in South Dakota.

It is also useful to track the change of ratings for each office holder to get a sense of sentiments within the party. As is evident in the bar chart below, every figure is below their peak score from October 2020. Typically, in the midst of an election, people’s attention to politics is at its peak and their political identities are fully “awakened.” It is of no surprise that as they move on to other things in their lives after the election takes place, that their assessment of office holders goes down. What is of note here, is that this drop has not been uniform. The congressional delegation’s score all went down sharply from October to April; and they have not recovered much in the interim. Trump’s scores also dropped, but not to the degree of the others. Meanwhile, Gov. Noem’s ratings have scarcely changed over the course of last 10 months. This puts her in an excellent position entering the 2022 election year, with a primary challenge almost impossible to imagine. However, as Senator Thune’s election bid approaches, there are potential challenges coming from the right wing of the party, largely due to their public break with Trump in the wake of the January 6 capitol insurrection. Though these challenges may ultimately prove unsuccessful, they are a clear sign of a dissatisfaction that our congressional delegation faces from the within Republican ranks that the governor may well be immune to.

bar chart showing that all of the political figures we asked about showed declines from highs in  October through August amongst Republicans. Johnson, Thune and Rounds declined much more than Noem, Trump, or even Biden.

South Dakota Democrats are Cool to the Congressional Delegation, and Cold to the Governor

Democrats in South Dakota predictably show greatest support to Biden with a score of 79 (on par with Noem’s ratings amongst Republicans) with their lowest marks going to Trump at 6, and  Noem at 10. Johnson retains a rather strong rating of 38, while Thune and Rounds trail at 30 and 26, respectively. The governor’s weakness is no doubt related to her much closer association with President Trump than we have seen from the congressional delegation since his decision to contest the election of 2020.

Bar chart showing thermometer ratings amongst Democrats at 79 for Biden, 38 for Johnson, 30 for Thune, 26 for Rounds, 10 for Noem, and 6 for Trump.

Independents Continue to Show Strong Support of Dusty Johnson

Self-described independents composed 26% of our sample, with 27% identifying as Democrats, and 47% as Republicans. Amongst those independents, about 39% “lean” towards the Republican Party and 30% lean towards the Democratic Party, leaving 26% of them truly neutral. In total, about 8% of the electorate are what we refer to as “true independents.” However, we treat all independents together since they do share the underlying trait of disassociating with either of the main political parties. Amongst independents, Johnson is the favorite with a mean rating of 49. Thune follows at 41, Rounds at 38, Noem at 34, and Trump at 30. Both Trump and Noem have lost significant ground amongst independents since our April poll. Interestingly enough, Biden’s rating moved up to 37, edging out the governor and soundly beating out the former president. Though research has shown that independents are generally not the determining factor in an election, we still ought to pay careful attention to the preferences of this group since their collective voice could be decisive if they trend solidly towards a particular candidate or party.

Bar chart showing thermometer ratings amongst independents as 37 for Biden, 49 for Johnson, 41 for Thune, 38 for Rounds, 34 for Noem, and 30 for Trump.


Contributors: Filip Viskupic PhD, Abdallah Badahdah PhD & David Wiltse PhD