Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling (PPP) has released a new poll of the North Carolina Senate race, featuring Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan squaring off against Republican state house speaker Thom Tillis, with ostensibly good news for the Democrat: She’s up seven points and expanded on her lead. Their headline: “Hagan continues to grow lead.”
But dig a little deeper and the story is mixed for the Democrat. Hagan’s seven-point lead is due largely to the libertarian candidate, who is polling 8 percent. In no cycle since 1986 has the libertarian pulled more than 3.4 percent in North Carolina; on average the libertarian has won 2.1 percent of the vote. And a deeper dive into PPP’s cross-tabs suggests that a large portion of the libertarian support is actually Republican.
In the head to head match-up, excluding the libertarian, Hagan’s lead is 3 points, which is less than the 4 point lead she posted in their last head-to-head poll. Moreover, she pulls just 42 percent of the vote, a bad spot for any candidate with 90%+ name recognition.
Another complication worth noting: PPP has a peculiar method in the spring and summer months, when they poll “voters.” I do not mean registered voters or likely voters, but people who voted in previous cycles, including presidential ones. This means that they are inevitably sampling an electorate that is much broader than what we will see in November. Turnout in 2012 was 60.2 percent of the voting age population in North Carolina; in 2010 it was 36.4 percent. I know of no other pollster that uses this methodology.
I think the bottom line is that North Carolina joins a list of nearly a dozen states where the real world state of the race is within spitting distance of a tie, with 15 to 20 percent of the electorate still undecided. That is how I would characterize the Democratic-held seats in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, and North Carolina, as well as Republican-held seats in Georgia and Kentucky.
Moreover, this appears to have been the state of the race a month ago, even two months ago (although Michigan has since slipped from a toss-up to back to favoring the Democrats).
Nate Cohn of the New York Times had an interesting piece suggesting that this was bad news for the Republicans. He wrote:
But as July turns to August, the G.O.P. is now on the clock. If there is to be a wave this November, the signs of a shift toward the G.O.P. ought to start to show up, somewhere, soon. Every day that goes by without a shift toward the G.O.P. increases the odds that there will not be a wave at all.
I am not sure this withstands historical scrutiny. At this point in 2010, Marco Rubio was trailing Charlie Crist. Rob Portman was in a tie in his battle against Lee Fisher in Ohio. Both won comfortably. Meanwhile, Wisconsin was just popping up on the radar as a pickup for the GOP, and everybody thought Delaware was in the bag. Furthermore, at this point the Cook Political Report also listed Kentucky, Missouri, and New Hampshire as Republican toss-ups, though the GOP won them all comfortably. On the House side, few people saw the magnitude of the GOP victory at this point in the cycle.
If you go back to 2006, you see something similar. Democrats were set to pick up Senate seats, but the contours of their victory were not yet apparent. Virginia certainly was not on the radar at this point in 2006; nobody thought Harold Ford would run a close race in Tennessee; and few people expected the GOP would lose all the close incumbent-held races.
Go back to 1994, and very few of the major pundits saw the GOP wave coming -- even until the very end. Michael Barone was a notable exception.
In other words, big midterm victories are often not apparent at this point in the cycle. And why should they be? In this case, the GOP has only recently selected a number of its nominees, and anyway voters are not yet fully engaged. It’s vacation time!
So, I would not put the GOP “on the clock” for another month. And my guess is that in a month things will still look roughly the same as they do today.
Cohn is certainly right about one thing: The Republican party is enormously unpopular, and that could spoil any wave that might otherwise build. One could argue that something like this happened to the party in 1978, as well. But it is still quite early in the cycle to make that call.