Two polls released this week show Democrat Cal Cunningham still leading incumbent Republican Thom Tillis in the closely-watched North Carolina U.S. Senate race. They’re the first polls done since the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the ensuing political battle over her replacement on the court.
Tillis, who has been trailing in polls all year, shifted his campaign’s focus last week to the approval of Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump’s pick to replace Ginsburg. That change didn't affect the latest polls much. A Meredith College poll of registered voters released Monday shows him behind Cunningham 43.1% to 41.8%, a margin that is in the poll's statistical margin of error. That's closest Tillis has been in any poll to Cunningham in months. A poll from UMass-Lowell released Tuesday, which surveyed likely voters, has Cunningham up 49 to 43%. The North Carolina election is considered crucial nationally, as it is seen along with Arizona, Colorado, and Maine as one of the four states that Democrats could win to retake control of the U.S. Senate.
The new focus on the Supreme Court opening and confirmation process in the U.S. Senate isn't likely to sway voters to either candidate says Western Carolina University political scientist Dr. Chris Cooper. If Tillis thinks the issue could fire up his base of voters, the same could be true of Cunningham supporters reasons Cooper. "There's an old saying for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. It's not just true in physics, but it's also true in politics as well," Cooper says. "I think (the Supreme Court opening" is going to activate both bases. I don't think it's going to persuade anyone. But it may take the volume which is already at ten, and crank it up to eleven."
While the Supreme Court opening was last week's headlining issue in the race, something far more trivial took the spotlight this week. On Monday, Cunningham tweeted a photo of himself wearing an apron that said 'Ambassador For North Carolina BBQ' in front of a closed gas grill with a plate containing hot dog buns off to the side. The caption for the photo said "There's nothing better than BBQ - except for winning this Senate seat, of course."
The North Carolina Republican Party issued two press releases this week criticizing the Cunningham photo, essentially calling it an incorrect representation of barbecuing in North Carolina. BBQ is one of the longest running and hottest arguments in the state, mostly centering on the preference of either Eastern North Carolina-style barbecue, which uses a vinegar-based sauce, or Western North Carolina-style, which uses a vinegar and tomato-based sauce. Cunningham himself grew up in Lexington, home of WNC-style BBQ and the annual Lexington Barbecue Festival.
Does this matter to voters? Chris Cooper says no. "Thank goodness this is really not how elections are won and lost. I do not think this is going to move any voters. It's kind of a fun detour on a not very fun election season."
POLL RESULTS ON OTHER RACES
Both polls have similar results for the other races at the top of the ticket in North Carolina. Both have Republican President Donald Trump in a virtual tie with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. The Meredith poll lists 6% of those surveyed saying they're still undecided, while the UMass-Lowell poll has just 2% undecided (it also included third-party candidates, which received 3% of the vote). Democratic Governor Roy Cooper leads his Republican challenger Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest 50-39% in the Meredith poll, and 54-41% in the UMass-Lowell poll.