RALEIGH — In 2016 North Carolina features the country’s most competitive election for governor, one of the country’s most competitive elections for U.S. Senate, and the tightest state race in the country between Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump.
This is one of those bad news-good news situations. I’ll give you the bad news first: If you are already sick and tired of hearing about politics and you live in North Carolina, the next four months of your life are going to be unpleasant.
On the flipside, if you are a political junkie, North Carolina is the place to be. For example, the race between Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and his Democratic challenger, Attorney General Roy Cooper, promises to be one of the most compelling electoral contests in the country.
Both men are experienced, talented politicians. Both of their campaign teams are also experienced, talented, and likely to be well-financed (although Cooper has so far outraised McCrory, reflecting just how motivated North Carolina Democrats are to regain some power in what had until recently been a traditionally Democratic state). The gubernatorial race is also attracting thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars from independent groups, in-state and out-of-state, that have a strong interest in the outcome.
Until both major parties conclude their national conventions, the dynamics of the Clinton-Trump race in North Carolina will remain uncertain. Generally speaking, if Trump is fighting to keep our state in the red column, that’s good news for Clinton. She doesn’t need North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes to win. Trump does.
Right now, Clinton enjoys a slight edge in the most recent polls of North Carolina voters, while Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr leads his Democratic opponent, former state Rep. Deborah Ross, by a wider margin. McCrory and Cooper are almost precisely tied.
I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in these early indicators, for several reasons. First, midsummer polls aren’t all that predictive of the outcome of competitive races, if history is any guide. Intervening events can change the priorities that voters place on certain issues, or change their views of candidates — particularly those with whom they are not already greatly familiar. Cooper, Ross, and Burr all fit that latter category.
Second, not all pollsters studying the North Carolina electorate are yet attempting to predict which voters will turn out this fall. Some surveys screen for “likely voters.” Others just ask all registered voters to weigh in, regardless of how likely they are to cast ballots. This can make a big difference, although not always in the direction you might think. Right now, among the recent polls of registered North Carolina voters, both Cooper and Clinton have average leads of two percentage points in their respective races. But among polls of likely voters, McCrory actually leads Cooper by two points — while Clinton’s lead over Trump widens to five points.
Is that conceivable? Yes, actually. There are always some people whose partisan allegiances are split or who only care about a single race (usually the presidency). Their proclivities to turn out in the fall aren’t necessarily uniform. It could be that the North Carolinians who say they’ll split their tickets for McCrory and Clinton — or to vote only for Clinton and then leave — are more likely to turn out than those who are say they are potential Trump-only or Trump-Cooper voters.
Most models that seek to predict the outcome of presidential, senatorial, or gubernatorial races don’t just plug in polling averages and spit out an answer. They include lots of other variables in the equation, such as incumbency status, voter ideology, and economic conditions. That’s why some savvy analysts of North Carolina politics believe McCrory has at least a modest edge for re-election and that Trump will do better in the state than current polling would suggest.
I have no firm prediction to make — other than third-party candidates, such as Libertarian Gary Johnson for president, will probably do better than they have in a long while. Restless people emigrate.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.