North Carolina has gotten used to being in the political spotlight. Since 2008, we’ve been one of the most closely watched states in the country. And I’m not talking about the negative publicity brought to us by the Governor and General Assembly. I’m talking the importance of the state in presidential, US Senate and gubernatorial campaigns.
In both the 2008 and 2012, North Carolina was the second closest state in the presidential contests. In 2014, all eyes were on the Hagan-Tillis race in the fight for the Senate. Tillis ultimately came out on top in the closest contest that year.
This year, we’ve got a triple decker. The presidential, US Senate and governor’s race are among the most contested in the nation. So how is all that shaping up with six weeks to go? Let’s see.
First, the governor’s race. Last week an Elon University poll showed Governor Pat McCrory leading Attorney General Roy Cooper by three points. Not too many people in the state believe that. From what I’ve heard, internal polls have Cooper leading by seven, NYT has him up eight and PPP has him up by five. Those numbers are more likely.
McCrory has made himself the face of HB2. All of the polls find it a remarkably unpopular bill and a majority of people believe it’s hurt the state. The shooting and protests in Charlotte have diverted attention away from bathrooms and discrimination for the time being, but the peaceful nature of the protests don’t appear to be influencing the race too much, at least not at this time.
McCrory is trailing by a large enough margin that he probably needs a major event to shift the dynamics of the race. The Charlotte situation might do that, but right now it appears to be stable. People have enough information about the two candidates to have formed relatively informed opinions of both men and they favor Cooper at this point. Debates could make a difference but Cooper would need to have a very poor showing and McCrory would need to make very good one. It’s certainly not over but favors Cooper right now.
In the Senate contest, Republicans are worrying about Senator Richard Burr’s lackadaisical campaign style. In contrast, Deborah Ross has become a star among Democratic Senate candidates across the country. While she wasn’t the DSCC’s first choice, she proven herself to be a charismatic candidate and prolific fundraiser.
Recent polls have her leading Burr by anywhere from a point to four points. That’s a good place to be heading into October. Burr, for his part, doesn’t believe in campaigning before October. Expect a barrage of hard-hitting ads starting in the next week or two.
Burr’s low-key approach to governing and campaigning has always been his strength and his weakness. While he’s relatively unknown for an incumbent, he also doesn’t have very high negatives. He is easier to define than a more high-profile leader, but he has few really negative personal traits. On the contrary, he comes across as likable and down-to-earth. As long as both candidates continue to run competent campaigns, this race will likely be decided in the last couple of weeks of the election and may be influenced more by the political climate at the end of October than anything either candidate does or says (See Hagan-Tillis 2014).
The presidential race in North Carolina is currently a knot. Neither Clinton nor Trump is popular and more of the electorate will probably vote against rather than for someone this year. Clinton is in a good spot. She just got past the worst month she’s had since the campaign began and she’s still tied. Her campaign and its allies have heavily outspent Trump and that’s probably had a hand in keeping her in the game.
The debates will make a big difference in this race. While both candidates are fairly well defined, watching them side by side will have an influence on the few people who are truly undecided as well as the people who, right now, can’t bring themselves to vote for either candidate.
Clinton has a serious grassroots operation on the ground right now. Democrats have requested and turned in as many mail-in absentee ballots as Republicans. Historically, Republicans have outpaced Democrats by large margins in this method of voting. If it’s an indicator of how their ground games work when in-person early voting begins, then Democrats have a significant advantage.
There’s no reason to stop watching North Carolina. It is still the ultimate swing state. The volatile political environment could swing races up and down the ballot. Right now, Cooper seems to have an advantage in the governor’s race. Ross is well positioned in the Senate contest but Burr will likely begin his campaign in earnest in the next week or so. And the presidential contest may come down to the debates unless we get to see the free-wheeling Trump that was running around in the primaries and in August. Regardless, November 8th will probably be a late night in North Carolina.