RALEIGH — Labor Day traditionally begins the homestretch of political campaigns. So now is a good time to assess how key candidates are faring in North Carolina — and what would need to happen for them to finish first by Election Day.
In the presidential race, the average of the seven polls publicly released in July and August gives Hillary Clinton 43 percent and Donald Trump 41 percent of the vote, with Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein accounting for a combined (and impressive) 9 percent. That leaves an average of about 7 percent undecided at this point.
Since March, Clinton has usually enjoyed a narrow edge over Trump in North Carolina polling. While at the national level the succession of Republican and Democratic conventions seems to have given her at least a modest net gain, her position in our state hasn’t changed very much.
In the U.S. Senate race, incumbent Richard Burr averages 46 percent, vs. 42 percent for his Democratic challenger, former state Rep. Deborah Ross. According to polling averages, this race hasn’t changed dramatically over the past several months, either. Burr has generally led Ross in most surveys, with Libertarian Sean Haugh averaging in the low single-digits.
By contrast, the latest polling has shifted in the governor’s race. Before midsummer, Republican incumbent Pat McCrory and Democratic challenger Roy Cooper were usually within one or two points of each other, averaging in the low to mid- 40s. Over the five publicly available surveys in July and August, however, Cooper leads McCrory by an average of five points.
Interestingly, both the governor and the attorney general are outpolling their respective presidential tickets. McCrory currently averages 44 percent vs. Trump’s 41 percent. Cooper currently averages 49 percent vs. Clinton’s 43 percent. There are quite a few Republican-leaning voters who like McCrory much more than they like Trump. Even more Democratic-leaning voters are more confident in Cooper than they are in Clinton.
It’s important to keep in mind, though, that some of these Cooper (and McCrory) voters are still “leaners.” They aren’t completely locked into their choices. What explains Cooper’s August surge? I believe it reflects the Democratic campaign’s significant placement of TV ads, particularly in the Triangle media market (which is where most of Cooper’s statewide lead is actually located). Swing voters are now hearing more about the candidate with whom many were unfamiliar (Cooper) and hearing negative things about the candidate whose name they already recognized (McCrory).
This is not to diminish Cooper’s gains. Pollsters ought to ask undecided voters how they lean, and then report those findings. Otherwise, they are suppressing critical information with which to predict what would happen if the election were held today.
Cooper’s ads are well-produced and well-placed. According to the Wesleyan University Media Project, pro-Cooper ads (by the campaign and other groups) had run nearly 9,000 times through Aug. 18, while pro-McCrory ads had run about 6,000 times. More to the point, the pro-Cooper forces had spent $5.6 million and the pro-McCrory forces had spent $2 million, suggesting the Cooper ads have been placed in higher-rated timeslots, reaching more potential voters.
If you are already sick of seeing ads from these candidates, I’m afraid your symptoms will only get more acute. The McCrory campaign and its supporters will be responding on the air — and giving Cooper the first hard hits he’s gotten in many election cycles. Burr and Ross will go on TV in a major way, too. And the Trump campaign, with diminishing prospects in other traditional battlegrounds, will be betting heavily on North Carolina. Keep in mind, too, that there are other important races on the statewide ballot — competitive ones for attorney general, state treasurer, lieutenant governor, and the state courts, among others. You’ll see ads from them, as well.
August was a Democratic month. But the 2016 chapter of the book of North Carolina politics is still being written. Our electorate has become closely divided. Our elections have become closely watched. And there are no permanent victories.
John Hood, the chairman of the John Locke Foundation chairman, is the author of “Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.”