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First Read: A Bluegrass State Showdown – And One Year to 2016

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

Today’s Bluegrass State Showdown

We’re essentially one year out before Election Day 2016, and we have plenty of political stories and information to mark that milepost (just see below). But today is also Election Day 2015, and here is the marquee contest we’re following: Kentucky’s gubernatorial race between Democrat Jack Conway and Republican Matt Bevin. Back in the summer, we dubbed the race possibly the Last Obama War, because it largely hinges on this question: Whom do Kentucky voters dislike more -- President Obama or the Tea Party? (Of course, we could also see this same dynamic play out in the Louisiana gubernatorial race on Nov. 21.) The Conway-Bevin race also has a lot at stake, too -- the future of the state’s health-care exchange (Bevin says he will eliminate it), Rand Paul’s Senate seat in 2016 (if Democrats win, we bet you they’ll be emboldened to find a challenger to Paul), and Kim Davis and religious also have been issues in this race. So who’s going to win? “It’s still very close, but put a thumb on the scale for Conway,” the Cook Political Report’s Jennifer Duffy told us. Final polling places in Kentucky close at 6:00 pm ET (in the eastern part of the state) and 7:00 pm ET (in the central time zone).

Why Ben Carson isn’t just your new GOP frontrunner; he’s a strong GOP frontrunner

That’s our takeaway from our new NBC/WSJ poll. Not only is Carson leading the Republican horserace with the highest percentage yet in our poll (29%), he also hits 50% when you combine GOP voters’ first and second choices -- the only Republican presidential candidate to do that. Then take the fact that he’s raising the most money in the Republican race (his campaign reported raising $10 million in October alone, putting it on pace to raise $30 million for the quarter). And then add in that he gets the most social-media interaction when it comes to Facebook. Anyone who wants to dismiss Carson as Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann is making a big mistake. Sure, it’s more than possible that Carson doesn’t ultimately become the GOP nominee. But NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D) makes a convincing case that the 2016 dynamic on the Republican side could have some similarities to 1964, when Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater. “What if the cake is baked?” Hart asks. “This is not a status-quo electorate.”

Hillary gets stronger with Democrats. But that’s not the case with the electorate at large

Meanwhile, in the Democratic race, Hillary Clinton has increased her lead over Bernie Sanders after he strong October (debate, Biden not running, Benghazi testimony): She’s ahead of him by 31 points (62%-31%) in our new NBC/WSJ poll -- up from 25 points earlier in October (58%-33%). The percentage of Democrats saying they could see themselves supporting her increased as well, from 81% in mid-October, to 85% now. But her overall positive/negative number barely moved (39%-48% in mid-October, 40%-47% now). And her personal attributes didn’t really move, including those giving her high marks for being honest and straightforward (just 26% in mid-October, 27% now). “She has regained her commanding position with Democrats,” says NBC/WSJ co-pollster Fred Yang (D). “[Yet] despite arguably her best few weeks of the campaign starting with the Las Vegas debate, [she] shows little upward movement” with the rest of the electorate.

Why Jeb Bush is in such trouble

Our NBC/WSJ poll also shows why Jeb Bush’s campaign -- which tried a reboot of sorts yesterday -- is in such trouble. A majority of GOP primary voters (52%) say they couldn’t see themselves support Bush, versus 45% who can. Just compare those numbers to the rest of the Republican field (first percentage is could see themselves supporting, second is cannot see themselves supporting):

  • Ben Carson: 77%-18% (+59)
  • Marco Rubio: 59%-32% (+27)
  • Donald Trump: 60%-37% (+23)
  • Ted Cruz: 57%-34% (+23)
  • Carly Fiorina: 49%-37% (+12)
  • Jeb Bush: 45%-52% (-7)

Why Republicans are from Mars and Democrats from Venus -- NBC/WSJ Poll Edition

Finally in looking at our poll, here are some of the KEY differences between Democrats and Republicans. One, 63% of Democratic primary voters want a president who seeks common ground, versus 64% of GOP primary voters who want a president who stands up for convictions. And on the issues, 12% of Democrats view health care as their No. 1 issue, versus just 3% of Republicans. And 14% of Republicans say foreign policy and the Middle East are their top concern, compared with 5% of Democrats.

One year out until Election Day 2016

To mark the one-year-out milepost until the 2016 general election, here are several of our stories on our website right now:

And we have a lot more to come later today…

On the trail

Hillary Clinton campaigns in Iowa… Donald Trump holds a press conference in NYC for his new book “Crippled America”… Ben Carson continues to sign books in Florida… Jeb Bush stumps in South Carolina and New Hampshire… John Kasich is in Iowa… And Martin O’Malley is in New Hampshire.

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