Throughout the first part of the Trump presidency, if there was one GOP senator that tried to keep her moderate, middle of the road afloat even as the country polarized, it was Susan Collins. Known for her fierce independence and impressive electoral record, Collins boasted high approvals and broad popularity even as many of her congressional co-workers saw their once-pristine reputations deteriorate. But this trend may be coming to an end.
As Collins gears up for a difficult 2020 race, her numbers have begun to look more and more pedestrian. Despite this, some observers still expect her to end up winning re-election decisively. But the data does not back up this prediction. Collins has made a career out of overperforming expectations, but for the first time, she is being overrated. Her approvals, her general election matchup polls, and the lean of her state point to her being in real danger of losing, with nothing obvious coming to save her.
Susan Collins used to be known as one of the most popular senators in America. According to an October 2018 poll from Morning Consult, she had over 50% approval and her approval rating was 15% higher than her disapproval rating. For a senator that represents a state Donald Trump lost by 3% (and only received 45% in statewide), this was a remarkable accomplishment.
Recently, however numbers have slipped. In Morning Consult’s most recent poll, taken at the end of 2019, her approval stood at 42%, with 52% of Maine voters disapproving of her performance. For reference, here are the ratings of every senator who lost their seat in 2018 as of the end of 2017:
Bill Nelson: 51%-26% (+25%)
Joe Donnelly: 44%-30% (+14%)
Claire McCaskill: 41%-41% (Even)
Dean Heller: 41%-39% (+2%)
Heidi Heitkamp: 50%-33% (+17%)
In other words, Collins has a lower raw approval rating than 3 out of the 5 incumbents who lost in 2018, and a lower net approval (by 10%) than all of them.
Collins is not being aided in her quest for a fifth term by the lean of her state. Hillary Clinton won it by 3%, and Donald Trump received just under 45% of the vote. The second number is particularly important, because Maine recently instituted ranked choice voting for all elections. This means that Collins cannot win by simply consolidating the Trump base and keeping Gideon’s favorables down.
Additionally, based on his recent primary performance, Joe Biden does seem to be a much better fit for white working class voters than Clinton was. Trump’s near-flip of Maine was largely built off of an unusually strong showing for a Republican with this group. If Biden is winning Maine by 5%, as seems a reasonable outcome given recent general election polling, Collins will have her first uphill fight in an incredibly polarized era.
The belief Collins is a favorite to eventually pull off the win can be attributed to her remarkable electoral history. There is no denying that Collins has been one of the most superb performers of the last two decades. She has not lost a county in Maine since her first election in 1996. But as many politicians and political operatives learned the hard way, Donald Trump has ushered in a new era of polarization. Past performance means very little, just ask Bill Nelson, Claire McCaskill, David Valadao, and countless others.
This, of course, is not to say that an incumbent’s past performance is meaningless. Will Hurd, Joe Manchin, and Collin Peterson showed that presidential results are not destiny for down ballot races. However, in many cases electoral strength is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Incumbents seen as electable draw weaker opponents and less outside attention. In turn, this allows them to perform better than they otherwise would have, thus perpetuating the perception of their electoral strength.
The Senate race in Florida in 2018 exemplified this phenomenon better than anywhere else, as Bill Nelson faltered when finally faced with strong opposition. Relatedly, Republicans were left wondering if they had missed opportunities when B-list candidates in Montana and West Virginia fell just short of taking out Democratic incumbents who were initially considered electoral juggernauts. All of this is to say that there is no guarantee Collins, has, in reality, strong campaign skills or truly unique appeal. Many have assumed she still has both, and that assumption has guided much of the analysis of her race.
General Election Polls
Unfortunately for election watchers, polls of the general election have been sparse. Since last summer, there have been only two public polls of the race: a poll from Colby College that showed Collins down 1% to presumptive Democratic nominee Sara Gideon, and a poll from Public Policy Polling that showed her down 4%. Despite the lack of polls, the fact Collins remains under 50% as a well known incumbent and behind an opponent with far lower name recognition should set off alarm bells.
There is still hope for her chances at a fifth term, however. According to both Morning Consult and a recent PPP poll, Collins’ low approval stems from an underperformance among Republicans. In fact, in the PPP poll, Collins only registers a 33% approval rating, a truly dismal number. But it is only 59% with Trump voters, and she only trails Sara Gideon by 4% in that very same poll. Why? Because she wins nearly 80% of Trump voters in a head to head matchup, virtually the same as the percentage of Hillary Clinton voters Gideon wins.
Of course, Collins cannot just rely on Trump voters to get her over the finish line, but it’s a sign that she can consolidate the GOP base, which will almost certainly keep the election close.
Collins is in for a difficult fight. She’s no stranger to setting her own path and bucking expectations, but whether or not she can do it here is an entirely new question. She has cited cited Margaret Chase Smith as an inspiration, and may now be following her path in more ways than one. Smith, a maverick Republican, was the first woman to represent Maine in both the House and Senate. She had an impressive electoral record, dispatching challenger after challenger with ease until she ran for a fifth term in 1972 and lost a narrow race to Democrat William Hathaway. Collins will have to finally break the mold of her icon if she wishes to extend her political career.