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Gov. Noem’s approval takes a hit according to newly released poll

Nearly two-thirds of South Dakotans said Gov. Kristi Noem damaged her credibility in her latest book rollout, and nearly half said they have an unfavorable view of the second-term Republican, according to a scientific poll of 500 registered voters co-sponsored by South Dakota News Watch.

As for Noem’s bid to become former President Donald Trump’s vice-presidential nominee in 2024, nearly 60% of South Dakotans said she should not be chosen, including 55% of Republicans. The poll was also sponsored by the Chiesman Center for Democracy at the University of South Dakota.

The governor’s favorability based on personal popularity was 39%, down 13 points from a similar poll conducted in October 2020. Nearly half of respondents (48%) said they had an unfavorable opinion of Noem, which is double the number from 2020.

Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy conducted the statewide survey May 10-13, several days after the governor cut short her book publicity tour and returned to South Dakota. “No Going Back,” her second book, was published May 7.

Media coverage focused on revelations in the book about Noem killing an unruly family hunting dog and fabricating a meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. 

The controversy, and Noem’s response, has sent her political prospects into a spiral not just nationally but in the Mount Rushmore State, said Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen.

“These numbers are worse than I expected, quite frankly,” said Schaff. “What it tells you is that some of the issues coming out of the book not only damaged her national ambitions, but they put a serious damper on future statewide ambitions she might have had.”

Noem did not respond to News Watch interview requests for this story made through Ian Fury, her chief of communications.

Disappointment, embarrassment’ after book fallout

Poll respondents were selected randomly from a telephone-matched South Dakota voter registration list that included landline and cellphone numbers. Quotas were assigned to reflect voter registration by county. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

The poll showed that 52% approve of Noem’s job performance as governor, while 46% disapprove. An April analysis of Morning Consult polling data showed Noem with a job-performance approval rating of 59%, with disapproval at 38%.

Noem’s overall favorability, which includes a politician’s character traits and personality, took a larger hit, especially within her own party. While 81% of Republican respondents approved of Noem’s job performance, that number dipped to 58% when respondents were asked if they had a favorable opinion of her.

By comparison, Trump had a favorable rating among Republicans of 70%.

“I think those numbers speak to voters’ ability to distinguish between the job she’s doing as governor and her likability as a person,” said Julia Hellwege, an associate political science professor at USD and incoming director of the Chiesman Center.

Perhaps most notable is the fact that criticism and mockery of Noem’s book launch have come from all sides of the political and media spectrum, from traditionally liberal “Saturday Night Live” to conservative Fox News.

“Regardless of what party you belong to, it’s not a great look for the state,” said Hellwege. “When we’re getting ‘Saturday Night Live’-type attention in a negative way, there’s some disappointment and embarrassment wrapped up in that.”

Could book fallout impact Senate race?

Noem’s book, promoted as being “packed with surprising stories and practical lessons,” coincided with her rising national profile and status as one of the front-runners to be chosen as Trump’s running mate for his rematch against Biden.

“I will do everything I can to help him win and save this country,” Noem said as she endorsed Trump at a South Dakota GOP fundraiser in Rapid City in September 2023.

The 52-year-old Castlewood native was the betting favorite to get the VP nod as recently as January by OddsChecker.com.

A of May 17, the same betting site lists her as 49th in the VP race behind fringe political figures such as conservative commentator Candace Owens and University of Colorado football coach Deion Sanders.

If the book fallout prevents her from becoming the VP nominee or getting an administration position if Trump wins, it could also impact Noem’s next move in South Dakota politics.

There has been speculation that she could make a run for U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds’ seat in 2026. Political experts said the recent controversies and negative media attention could change the dynamic of that race.

“You’re only talking two years from now, and it’s not like Mike Rounds is in a weak political spot,” said Schaff. “She would not be the first politician to find herself in a kind of scandal and rehabilitate herself over time. Such things are possible. But these poll numbers show that she’s in a little bigger hole than I would have expected.”

Voters: Killing of Noem family dog was wrong

One of the book’s most revealing passages involved the killing of a 14-month-old female puppy named Cricket after the dog ruined a pheasant hunt with unruly behavior about 20 years ago.

Returning from the hunt, wrote Noem, she stopped to talk to a local family and Cricket jumped out of the truck and attacked the family’s chickens one at a time, “crunching it to death with one bite, then dropping it to attack another.”

“I hated that dog,” she wrote in the book. “At that moment, I realized I had to put her down.”

Nearly 6 in 10 of statewide poll respondents (58%) said they felt that the shooting of the dog was not justified, compared to 38% who said it was justified. Among female respondents, 65% said the shooting was not justified, compared to 50% of males.

“It’s not surprising, perhaps, that women were more critical of the shooting of the family dog, but half of men thought the same thing,” said Michael Card, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of South Dakota. “There’s a lot of room for the governor to grow, in terms of repairing her image.”

Nobody saying ‘You’re about to step in it’

Another passage from the book that drew criticism was a reference to meeting the notoriously reclusive North Korean dictator when she served on the House Armed Services Committee in Congress.

Trump met with Kim Jong Un several times as president, significant encounters that would have been highly unlikely for someone in Noem’s position. Without any congressional records to back it up, the story was widely disputed, and Noem’s staff and publisher, Hachette Book Group, said corrections would be made.

But in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on May 5, the governor didn’t offer a clear explanation of how the mistake happened or if she even acknowledged the error.

The News Watch poll asked registered voters: “Does Noem’s decision not to answer questions and address some of the issues she raised in her book damage her credibility with you?”

Statewide, 62% said yes, while 34% said no and 4% were undecided. Those saying that Noem’s credibility was damaged included 86% of Democrats, 48% of Republicans and 68% of Independents.

The book rollout and ensuing public relations crisis challenged an administration marked by cabinet and staff turnover, including five chiefs of staff. Noem has not named a sixth chief of staff after the June 2023 departure of Mark Miller, her former general counsel.

“People in leadership need to have at least one person who can tell them no and not be afraid they’re going to lose their job over it,” said Schaff, who was appointed by Noem to the state’s Social Studies Content Standards Commission in 2022.

“That typically falls to a chief of staff. If the governor is in a situation where there is nobody around to say, ‘You’re about to step in it,’ then I would say that she’s been ill-served.”

West River support of Noem is strongest

Noem’s geographic support within the state remains strongest West River, where 59% of respondents said they approve of her job performance, compared to Sioux Falls Metro (54%). East River South and East River North were both at 46%.

The governor’s overall favorability was 43% West River, the highest of the four regions.

Regarding shooting the family dog, 43% of West River respondents said the killing was justified, compared to 31% in the Sioux Falls area, which includes Minnehaha and Lincoln counties in the poll groupings.

Noem carried Pennington County (mostly Rapid City) with 61% of the vote in her 2022 re-election over Democratic challenger Jamie Smith, compared to 53% in Minnehaha County (mostly Sioux Falls).

Women, younger voters more critical of Noem

As seen in past polls, Noem’s support among male voters is stronger than with females. While 61% of male respondents approved of her job performance, that number was 44% for women.

However, both men (30%) and women (29%) surveyed were against the South Dakota governor being named Trump’s running mate. Both men (61%) and women (63%) also said that Noem’s reluctance to address some of the issues raised in her book damaged her credibility with them.

Male respondents said the shooting of the dog was not justified by a margin of 50% to 46%, compared to a margin of 65% to 38% for women.

Younger registered voters had the lowest evaluation of the governor in most categories, including job performance (34%) and overall favorability (26%).

Job performance approval of Noem from the youngest group was dramatically lower than respondents ages 35-49 (54%), 50-64 (61%) and 65-plus (51%).

Younger voters were also more critical of Noem’s puppy anecdote, with 71% of respondents ages 18-34 saying it was not justified, compared to 51% for ages 50-64 and 52% for ages 65-plus.

Mason-Dixon has a rating of 2.6 (3 is maximum) from FiveThirtyEight and ranks 30th out of 277 pollsters analyzed by the statistical site.

GOP support strong but ‘she has a lot of work to do’

Republicans are still heavily in support of Noem’s job performance, with 81.4% saying they approve, compared to 10.9% of Democrats and 32.8% of Independents.

But only 31.2% of GOP respondents said they think Trump should select Noem as VP nominee, which is less than Democrats (33.6%) who think so. Independents were 22.7%.

On the question of credibility following Noem’s book tour and evasive answers, 86% of Democrats surveyed said that she had damaged her credibility, compared to 68% of Independents and 48% of Republicans.

Schaff stressed that nearly half of GOP respondents viewing Noem’s credibility as damaged is a serious setback in her home state, where she has served as a state legislator, congressional representative and governor, and has never lost an election.

“That tells me that even within the state party, her base has eroded,” said Schaff. “I still think she’s a talented politician, and people have come back from similar things before, but it’s clear that she has a lot of work to do.”

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In Touch 6/14/24

Eric Kline with Northern State joins us to give us an update on NSU…