Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
The race for a seat on the New Mexico Supreme Court is setting up to be an Election Night nail-biter, a new Journal Poll found.
Republican Judith Nakamura and Democrat Michael Vigil each got 45 percent of support from likely state voters in the poll, which was conducted last week. They were also deadlocked in a previous Journal Poll conducted in late September, though there were far more undecided voters at that time.
Nakamura, who was appointed to the state’s highest court by Gov. Susana Martinez in November 2015, is trying to become the first Republican elected to the Supreme Court in New Mexico since 1980.
Her background as both a longtime Metro Court judge and a District Court judge in Albuquerque has given Nakamura inroads in and around Bernalillo County, which generally favors Democratic candidates, said Journal pollster Brian Sanderoff, the president of Research & Polling, Inc.
But Vigil, a Santa Fe native who is the chief judge on the state Court of Appeals, is also getting strong support from Albuquerque area voters. In addition, he holds an edge in the Las Cruces area and a strong lead in northern New Mexico.
The poll found Nakamura with a sizable advantage in both northwestern New Mexico and the state’s eastern region.
“This is an exciting race,” Sanderoff said. “It is very rare for a Republican to win election to the Supreme Court in New Mexico.”
Although support for the two candidates was evenly split overall, Nakamura held a narrow lead among voters who said they had already voted, the Journal Poll found. Fifty percent of those who had already voted said they had cast their ballots for Nakamura, compared with 45 percent for Vigil.
However, Vigil had a narrow edge among voters who had not yet voted but said they were very likely to do so. Forty-five percent of such voters said they would vote for Vigil, while 41 percent said they would back Nakamura.
Overall, roughly 10 percent of voters surveyed in the recent poll said they were still undecided or would not say which candidate they planned to support.
In a twist, male voters surveyed were more likely to support Nakamura – 50 percent to 39 percent – while female voters were more likely to back Vigil – 51 percent to 40 percent.
“There’s a gender gap, but in the opposite direction one might expect, given the candidates’ genders,” Sanderoff said.
Both Vigil and Nakamura received public funding for their campaigns, under a system that allocates funding for judicial candidates based on the voter registration figures in each major political party. And both candidates have used some of that money to launch TV ads.
However, the two have also lamented that judicial races in the state are run as partisan elections. Under the state’s current system, which was approved by voters in 1988, judges appointed by governors have to run in a partisan election in the next general election after their appointment and, then, if successful, later run periodically in nonpartisan retention elections.
Nakamura, who crafted a reputation of being tough on crime and DWI cases during her tenure at Metro Court, recently said she wants voters to know she is already on the Supreme Court and “they have someone doing the job, doing a good job.”
Vigil, who spent much of his career as a private practice attorney with a focus on personal injury and medical malpractice issues, has said his past experiences give him a different perspective from Nakamura’s.
“Justice isn’t only about laws; it’s about lives,” he said in a recent interview.
The Journal Poll is based on a scientific, statewide sample of 504 voters who said they had already voted this year or planned to vote. Most voters surveyed cast ballots in either the 2012 or 2014 general elections; a small portion of newly registered voters were also included in the sample.
The poll was conducted Nov. 1 through Nov. 3. The full voter sample has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points. The margin of error grows for subsamples.
All interviews were conducted by live, professional interviewers, with multiple callbacks to households that did not initially answer the phone.
Both cellphone numbers (50 percent) and landlines (50 percent) of proven general election voters were used.
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