Dueling Polls in North Carolina Show Disparity in Candidate Numbers

By Jim Ellis

April 20, 2020 — Within a 10-day period, two statewide polls producing radically different results were conducted of the North Carolina electorate. Rather unsurprisingly, the Republican polling firm turned in better results for the GOP candidates than did the Democratic company.

As has been the political narrative for this entire election cycle, North Carolina is going to be one of the most competitive states in the nation. The presidential, US Senate, and gubernatorial races will all be pivotal within the national context.

Harper Polling, the Republican firm, went into the field during the April 5-7 period and conducted live interviews of 500 likely general election voters. Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh-based Democratic survey research company, conducted a large sample poll of 1,318 North Carolina registered voters through a combination of interactive voice and text messaging response systems.

In both the presidential and US Senate campaigns we see diverse results, and particularly so for the latter, yet for the governor’s race the two firms yielded almost identical numbers.

Harper finds President Trump leading former vice president Joe Biden, 49-42 percent, well beyond the polling margin of error. This result is obviously good news for the president in what is for him a must-win state. Conversely, PPP projects only a 48-47 percent split among the two candidates, and in Biden’s favor. In actuality, the two pollsters, while a net eight points apart on their respective ballot tests, are close – within two points – on the Trump number. They are not even within the same realm, and in fact beyond any polling margin of error, on the Biden posting.

The president’s standing could actually be a bit better in North Carolina than these results, and particularly the PPP totals, indicate. In the 2016 election, he under-polled in the Tar Heel State. In the final three polls before the vote, from three different survey research firms, Hillary Clinton held an average 1.3 percentage point advantage over then-candidate Trump. The end result, however, was a 3.3 percentage point victory for the Republican nominee.

The polling difference is even greater in the US Senate contest, which most consider in the toss-up category at this time. Such is not unusual for a North Carolina Senate race since the state’s electorate has defeated more incumbent senators than any place in the Union during the modern political era.

Harper finds first-term Sen. Thom Tillis (R) leading former state senator Cal Cunningham (D), 38-34 percent, while PPP projects Cunningham to have a 47-40 percent advantage. Clearly, we see more decided voters under the PPP model, and interestingly, again the two pollsters come close in their result for the Republican candidate (Tillis 38/40 percent) but are considerably different in standing for the Democratic contender (Cunningham 34/47 percent).

For the Senate election, there is a net 15-point difference between the two polling results in the statewide surveys taken largely within the same testing period, this while projecting two different leaders. Though Harper and PPP also forecast a similar top position disparity in the presidential contest, that result fell within the polling margin of error meaning their combined results constituted a virtual tie.

The radical difference in the Senate race is even harder to explain when comparing the two pollsters’ numbers in the governor’s campaign. Here, first-term Gov. Roy Cooper (D) is seeking re-election and will face the new Republican nominee, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest (R), in the general election. Forest won the party nomination outright in the March 3 statewide primary.

Harper Polling finds Gov. Cooper enjoying a 50-33 percent margin, while Public Policy Polling sees a 50-36 percent spread, which is a virtually identical result. Clearly, the governor is a solid early favorite for re-election, but expect this contest to tighten as the election draws nearer.

The North Carolina electorate is volatile, and it would not be surprising to see such seesaw polling continue throughout the remaining months before the election. Therefore, the Tar Heel State once again features an electorate to be watched throughout the entire campaign season.

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