Reading North Carolina

By Jim Ellis

Sept. 17, 2020 — CNN released new North Carolina poll results earlier this week, and we again see a familiar pattern unfolding. There has been a Republican under-poll in the southern states detected in the past few elections, and the North Carolina pattern appears to form relatively consistently upon studying its most competitive statewide races in 2014, ’16, and what may be happening in 2020. There were no statewide Tar Heel State contests in 2018.

The CNN poll (conducted through the SSRS statistical firm; Sept. 9-13; 787 likely North Carolina voters; live interview through landline and mobile phones) found former vice president Joe Biden leading President Trump, 49-46 percent; Democratic US Senate nominee Cal Cunningham edging incumbent Republican Thom Tillis, 47-46 percent; and Gov. Roy Cooper (D) easily outdistancing Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, 53-44 percent.

How do these mid-September races compare with other campaigns at this same interval, and what does that tell us for autumn?

First, the CNN poll is one of seven polls conducted in North Carolina during the month of September, and its three-point margin for Biden is the Democrat’s second-best showing within this group. The only better Biden performance came from the Fox News poll at the beginning of September (Aug. 29-Sept. 1; 722 likely North Carolina voters, live interview), which posted him to a four-point, 50-46 percent, advantage.

Among the five other surveys, Biden is ahead in two, President Trump in two, and one has the pair tied at 47 percent apiece (Survey USA for WRAL-TV; Sept. 10-13; 596 likely North Carolina voters). From the eight polls conducted from Aug. 29-Sept. 13, Biden’s edge is just 0.7 percent, meaning the two candidates average to a statistical tie.

Recent political history suggests that this type of an average spread sets up well for President Trump, and possibly Sen. Tillis. It appears that Gov. Cooper’s margin is beyond the statistically relevant late-term Republican swing.

In September of 2016, a total of 14 publicly released polls were conducted during that month. Within this group, Hillary Clinton led in 10 of the surveys with an average spread of 2.4 percentage points. Trump was ahead in just three polls with an average margin of 2.0 percent. Two polls found the candidates tied. Therefore, Clinton’s overall September edge was an average 1.1 percent.

In the closing period from October 26 to November 6, a total of six polls were commissioned, and Trump held an average lead of 0.8 percent. In the end, he would carry the state with a 3.6 percentage point margin, 49.8 – 46.2 percent. Here, the swing toward Trump as the GOP nominee from the end of September was 4.7 percentage points.

Sen. Richard Burr (R) was also on the ballot in 2016 against former state Rep. Deborah Ross (D). Ross is now poised to win the 2nd Congressional District in the November election. For the previous Senate race, 13 polls were conducted in September. Ross led in six of them, and Sen. Burr five, with two ties. Because Sen. Burr’s margin was greater in the polls that he led than the commensurate spread for Ross even though she placed first more often, Burr held an overall average advantage at the end of September of 2.0 percentage points.

On Election Day, the senator was re-elected with a 5.7 percent margin, 51.4 – 45.4 percent. From the September posting, he increased his lead 3.7 percent points.

Back in 2014, then-state House Speaker Thom Tillis unseated Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, who has since passed away. That year, 12 polls were conducted in North Carolina and Sen. Hagan held a lead in 11 of them with an average margin of 3.8 percentage points through the end of September. Going into Election Day itself, Sen. Hagan still led, but her advantage had dropped to 1.2 percentage points.

In the final count, Tillis won the race 49.0 – 47.3 percent, meaning we saw a late swing toward Tillis of 2.9 percentage points and 5.5 in his direction since September’s end.

North Carolina is a pivotal state in both the presidential race and to determine the Senate majority. Though the polling marginally favors the Democrats, the historical swing toward Election Day typically helps the Republicans, meaning we can again expect a tight conclusion.

Additionally, learning the electorate’s final decision will most likely come in political overtime. North Carolina is one of the 16 states that will allow ballots to be received after Election Day. Since they are accepting votes until close of business on Friday, Nov. 6, it appears that we won’t know the final outcome until well into the week following the election, if then. This would be especially crucial if North Carolina becomes the deciding state to determine the next Senate majority.

As with many states that could be close, the political overtime in North Carolina could be very long. The tighter the result, the more legal challenges we will see filed.

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