Tuesday, September 30, 2014
It’s not usually wise to focus too much on individual polls, but Sunday’s CNN/ORC poll in North Carolina is worth a little extra attention.
The poll’s top-line findings are unsurprising. As with other polls, it finds Senator Kay Hagan, a Democrat, leading Thom Tillis, the Republican challenger, by three percentage points, 46 to 43 percent.
But there was a piece of good news for the Republicans buried inside the poll, one that might influence our view of the race: Mr. Tillis’s favorability rating.
The conventional view holds that Ms. Hagan has a lead because Mr. Tillis is unpopular. He’s the speaker of the state’s unpopular House of Representatives, and he passed an education budget that the Hagan campaign and its allies have hammered over the summer.
It’s a seemingly sound story line. Given the state’s demographics and her own ratings, Ms. Hagan should probably be behind in this race; if she’s ahead, it stands to reason that Mr. Tillis is the problem. It also lines up with Ms. Hagan’s advantage in fund-raising — perhaps her only advantage — which has allowed her to spend millions attacking Mr. Tillis on education.
There’s one weakness in this narrative: the amount of evidence supporting it. A USA Today/Suffolk poll in August found Mr. Tillis’s favorability rating at minus-14, but there isn’t much other evidence to back it up. Most of the polls haven’t asked about Mr. Tillis. Nonetheless, it was enough for me to come down on the side of a Hagan advantage when I weighed in last week. Minus-14 is a pretty big number, and it’s consistent with Ms. Hagan’s surprisingly solid position.
If there were more surveys showing Mr. Tillis as unpopular as the conventional view, then perhaps we could discount the CNN/ORC poll as an outlier. But in the absence of more evidence to the contrary, one should at least be open to the possibility that Mr. Tillis is more popular than was thought.
That opens the door to a different view of the race: that Mr. Tillis is poised to narrow or eliminate Ms. Hagan’s lead behind undecided voters who view him favorably and who view Ms. Hagan and President Obama unfavorably.
Mr. Tillis might also benefit from the inevitable decline in the support of Sean Haugh, a libertarian candidate who attracted 7 percent of the vote in the CNN/ORC poll.
Even in that scenario, Ms. Hagan would still probably be near even-money to win. She’s already at 46 percent of the vote, and her magic number is probably only 48 or 48.5 percent in a contest in which minor party candidates are poised to take at least 3 percent of the vote.
But if Mr. Tillis is as popular as the CNN/ORC poll suggests, then her three-point lead could easily evaporate, along with the basis for the view that she’s favored.