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Poll shows strong statewide support for Gov. Noem, except on marijuana legalization

Average of 61.2% of respondents strongly or somewhat in approve of her performance across five topic areas

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In a Nov. 1, 2021 post on her personal Twitter account, Gov. Kristi Noem wrote: "Happy #WorldVeganDay to all the hunters who enjoy harvesting vegan pheasant, deer, and elk!" along with this photo. Many Twitter users responded that Noem was belittling vegans in the post. (Photo: Twitter)

With nearly three years as governor complete, and as she kicks off a reelection campaign, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem is enjoying strong statewide support for her performance, according to a new poll.

The poll of 500 registered voters conducted in late October showed that a majority of South Dakotans support the governor’s performance, with an average of 61.2% of respondents strongly or somewhat in approval of her performance across five topic areas. About 37% of overall respondents somewhat or strongly disapproved of Noem’s performance on the five topics.

Noem, 50, is a former state lawmaker and member of Congress who was elected South Dakota governor in 2018. Noem has announced she is running for reelection in 2022, and will face a GOP primary challenge from state Rep. Steve Haugaard, a Sioux Falls attorney and former speaker of the state House of Representatives.

David Wiltse, a political science professor at South Dakota State University, said the poll results bode well for Noem as she seeks another term.

“This is, for the most part, pretty good news for her,” said Wiltse, who reviewed the poll results. “If I were her and I was looking at this, I would be really happy.”

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David Wiltse

The random telephone poll was conducted Oct. 20-23, 2021, by Mason Dixon and was sponsored by South Dakota News Watch and the Chiesman Center for Democracy at the University of South Dakota. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.5%.

Noem has positioned herself as a conservative Republican and has garnered national attention for her relatively hands-off approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, in which she pushed to keep businesses open, encouraged visitors to come to the state and railed against vaccine mandates.

Republicans were the most supportive of Noem, a first-term GOP governor, with 74.5% of Republicans strongly or somewhat in approval of her performance on five topics. Independents were less supportive, with 66.4% strongly or somewhat supportive. Among Democrats, who showed strong disapproval of Noem’s performance, 24.7% were strongly or somewhat in approval of her performance, with just over 65% of Democrats somewhat or strongly disapproving.

Noem’s performance ratings in the October 2021 poll rose in comparison with a similar News Watch/Chiesman Center poll conducted in October 2020, near the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Dakota. At that time, 53.8% of respondents overall were strongly or somewhat approving of Noem’s performance, while 40.9% were strongly or somewhat disapproving.

On her handling of the economy, 69.4% of respondents in the 2021 poll strongly or somewhat approved of her performance; 65.6% strongly or somewhat approved of her performance on managing the pandemic; 72.0% strongly or somewhat approved of her focus on problems specific to South Dakota; and 61.6% strongly or somewhat approved of her upholding of the integrity of the office.

Noem did not fare as well on her handling of marijuana legalization, with only 39.2% of respondents strongly or somewhat in approval, and 17.8% somewhat disapproving and 33.4% strongly disapproving of her performance.

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Emily Wanless, a political science professor at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, said Noem may appear increasingly strong among her supporters due to her higher national profile, and because she has had more time in office.

“I think she’s established herself as an executive in the state,” Wanless said.

Wanless said Noem also benefits from being a Republican in a state with supermajority GOP control in the Legislature and all statewide offices being held by Republicans.

That level of support, Wanless said, has likely made Noem feel comfortable attacking or mocking people or groups that disagree with her, such as in a recent Tweet where she encouraged vegans to eat meat on World Vegan Day and posted a photo of herself with a gun and a dead pheasant.

Wanless said divisive or mocking statements by the governor only add to the binary polarization sweeping politics in America and South Dakota.

“It’s not just that people are disagreeing on issues,” she said. “Polarization is taking shots at somebody’s morals, values and integrity, and for some reason, that resonates with her crowd to make these politicized statements and stances.”

Julia Hellwege, a political science professor at USD who also reviewed the poll results, said Noem’s dismissive nature toward those who disagree with her or question her actions may strengthen her hold on her conservative electoral base, but ultimately is not helpful in making South Dakota better and more welcoming to all residents. Operating on the far conservative edge of politics is essentially dismissing the desires and views of the 26% of voters in South Dakota who are registered Democrats, Hellwege said.

“Is the job of elected officials to continue to get re-elected and only speak to their partisans, or is it the job of elected officials to represent all people in the state?” Hellwege asked. "If you would like to see more civic engagement and more civil discourse and compromise, then yes, I would like her to speak more toward the minority parties.”

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Julia Hellwege

Wiltse also said that Noem is unlikely to lose any major support within the Republican Party due to any perceived missteps or controversies. During her first term, Noem has faced scrutiny for her frequent out-of-state political travel, sparring with Native American tribes, potential favoritism shown to her daughter in obtaining an appraiser’s license, and reporting that showed she spent $8,000 in taxpayer money on a sauna at the governor’s mansion.

Wiltse said most Republicans and conservative Independents in South Dakota are likely to overlook what he called "micro scandals" and continue to support Noem at election time.

“When it comes to these kinds of critiques, they typically don’t resonate all that much within that person’s own party," he said.

Wiltse said the apparent effort by Haugaard to label Noem as not conservative enough is unlikely to help him prevail in the GOP primary.

“Taking her out from within the Republican Party is going to be a really hard climb,” he said. “You’d have to find some really narrow wedge issues to split people off from the right at this point.”

Wanless said Noem should pay attention to how voters who self-identified as Independent in the poll responded, as those voters can play a big role in statewide elections in South Dakota. As of Dec. 1, 2021, 48.5% of South Dakota voters were registered as Republicans, 26.6% were registered as Democrats and 24.2% were registered as Independent or No Party Affiliation.

Wanless noted that even in GOP-dominated South Dakota, Noem defeated Democrat Billy Sutton in the 2018 gubernatorial election by only 51.0% to 47.6%, a difference of about 11,000 votes.

“What really matters is where Independents stand, because they are going to make or break whether a Democrat can win or not,” she said.

In the News Watch/Chiesman 2021 poll, Independents across the board were not as supportive of Noem as Republicans.

As the 2022 elections approach, Wiltse said Noem may move even more to the political right to ensure her base of GOP supporters is motivated.

“She may stake out positions more to the right than she has,” he said.

Noem’s communications director, Ian Fury, said in an email to News Watch that the poll results show that voters have a high trust level in the governor.

“Governor Noem trusted the people of South Dakota to exercise their freedoms, and it’s clear they continue to trust her in return. The governor will continue to focus on South Dakota priorities,” Fury wrote.

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