This week’s WRAL poll of the GOP U.S. Senate primary showed Mark Harris, long considered one the three top candidates, lagging far behind House Speaker Thom Tillis and Dr. Greg Brannon. While the poll has value, it’s no indication that Harris is out of the running. Instead it gives a general view of what the field looks like.

Primary polling is very difficult, especially this far out. Primary turnout, particularly in non-presidential years, varies widely so determining who will show is up is hard. Polls may accurately reflect the views of the sample tested but the sample may not reflect the people who actually vote.

In off-years like this one, turnout, especially in rural counties, can be driven more by local elections than top-of-the-ticket races. In addition, voters registered as unaffiliated can vote in either the Democratic primary or the Republican primary but not both. With nothing at the top the Democratic ticket, unaffiliated voters may choose a GOP ballot. In recent years, these unaffiliated voters have been making up an increasing percentage of primary voters in both Democratic and Republican primaries.

So what can we determine from the WRAL poll? Well, Thom Tillis is still the frontrunner and his TV ads have been making a difference. However, he’s probably not very close to the 40% threshold and that’s a problem for him if any of his opponents start communicating in the next few weeks.

Greg Brannon has got something going on. He’s the only other candidate with any significant name recognition and, no matter what he does, his people stick with him. Also, Heather Grant gets points for being the only woman on the ballot. Nobody else is really known.

The primary is increasingly looking like it will go to a second primary, which is bad for the GOP and good for Kay Hagan. Tillis can’t close the door despite a significant financial advantage and the backing of Republican groups that have stayed silent for some reason. Greg Brannon has a core of 15% to 20% who probably aren’t going to leave him. If Harris gets up on TV, which seems likely since he just did a poll, he will increase his numbers substantially. The combination of Brannon, Grant and Harris could well make up half the vote with the other four also-rans easily combining to make up the 10% that would throw the race into a runoff.