Thursday, May 23, 2013

Despite rising job approval, Kay Hagan puts up her worst numbers yet against unsettled NC GOP field in new PPP poll

While some things have changed since 1998, a lot about the North Carolina electorate hasn't, according to Public Policy Polling crosstabs. That year, fmr. Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-NC) (left) lost after one term in the U.S. Senate to newcomer John Edwards (D-NC). Photos courtesy of Ray Lustig / The Washington Post and Brooks Kraft/Corbis Sygma.
For all the chatter about the Republican's current inability to recruit a quality candidate to challenge North Carolina's junior Senator in the 2014 election, a new Public Policy Polling survey offers the state GOP with a glimmer of hope. Out of the Democratic pollster's six polls on the race since December 2012, a Republican named Cherie Berry has finally managed to TIE Sen. Kay Hagan (D), despite Hagan reaching her highest job approval rating yet (46/40%).

The chart below documents the results of PPP's 2014 NC Senate poll since December 2012, including only the candidates surveyed in the most recent poll:

Unfortunately for pollsters and researchers, exit polling in non-presidential year North Carolina Senate races is hard to come by (in 2010, there was no exit polling because Richard Burr led Elaine Marshall consistently throughout the campaign; in 2006, there was no NC Senate race; in 2002, major malfunctions with VNS led to exit polls being off, and as a result, incredibly difficult to come by. 1998 was the last NC Midterm with readily available exit poll data). This fact is important because without such data, it can be difficult for pollsters to weight the expected electorate.

Nevertheless, a frequently stated rule of thumb regarding midterms is that they typically feature a more white, less ethnically diverse, older, and generally more Republican type of voter than seen in Presidential election years.

So how do PPP's most recent findings regarding the potential 2014 electorate stack up as compared to the 2012 NC presidential electorate, and the 1998 Midterm electorate?

At least in terms of racial identification, the PPP crosstabs reveal an electorate that looks very similar to the one seen in 1998, when Democratic pariah John Edwards, then just beginning his political career and still well-liked, defeated 1-term incumbent Republican Senator and pig-farmer Lauch Faircloth, 51-47%. That year, 76% of the electorate identified as white, 22% identified as black, and 2% Hispanic/other. Flash forward 16 years to PPP's May survey, and the electorate is 76% white, 18% black, and 6% Hispanic/other.

In terms of partisan identification, age, and gender, the crosstabs diverge from the '98 Edwards/Faircloth race, at times resembling the 2012 electorate, and at times resembling nothing North Carolina electoral politics has experienced yet.

The chart below displays the North Carolina electorate in every election featuring a readily available exit poll since 1992, broken down by gender identification, age identification, and partisan identification:

* 1992 CNN North Carolina exit polling divided age groups above 45 years of age differently than in later years.

Looking at gender identification, PPP finds North Carolina with the 2nd highest gender gap since 1992, with voters identifying as 56% female and 44% male (identical to turnout in the last presidential race). Such a gap is obviously beneficial to Sen. Hagan, as the Democrat leads with women in every potential match-up by as little as 8 points, and as much as 17 points. In NC's last midterm with exit poll data (1998), he gender gap was only 3 points, with 51% of voters being women, and 48% being men.

Just for fun, the two far right column in the chart below documents how the PPP poll result would change in the event each match-up is reweighted to a more even split between men and women (along the lines of the 1998 midterm race):

As you can see, while the reweighting benefits Republicans slightly, the change is not significant.

Shifting your eyes to the middle columns in the chart above, you'll see that while reweighting the PPP poll to 1998 gender identification benefited Kay Hagan's Republican opponents, reweighting to 1998 age identification does the opposite. That's because PPP found a decidedly older 2014 electorate than the one measured by VNS exit polling in 1998. And because Hagan performs better among younger voters, her vote margin against the Republicans would obviously grow when reweighting to 1998.

Finally, the biggest difference between PPP's findings and 2012/1998 NC election exit polling was partisan identification. As the middle chart above indicates, PPP's D+12 finding represents the Democrats biggest advantage over the Republicans in any North Carolina election since 1992. In fact, it is actually more Democratic than either the 2012 Presidential election (D+6) OR the 1998 Edwards v. Faircloth election (D+7). It also goes a long way in explaining how Kay Hagan and Cherie Berry (R) can be TIED overall, while Berry performs better with her base, better with the opposing party, and leads among Independents 56-36%.

So how would the PPP results change if they had found partisan identification identical to the 1998 midterm election? See the 4th column from the right in the chart below:

Had PPP found a party ID more along the lines of the 2012 Presidential election or the 1998 midterm, all other PPP findings remaining the same, Kay Hagan would have trailed her Republican opponents by as much as 3 points (47-44% against Cherie Berry), and would lead them by as much as 7 points (46-39% against Lynn Wheeler).

As I note in most of these posts, the election is over a year away, and public opinion will certainly move in various directions between now and then. I'm certainly not suggesting that anything PPP is finding today is set in stone. Who knows how Benghazi, the IRS and AP scandals, or an improving economy will affect voter attitudes 18 months from now? But comparing different poll variables to past elections can provide us with a sort of snapshot of candidate floor/ceilings for a particular period of time in the overall race.

As for now, Kay Hagan looks to be in pretty good shape for reelection. Her approval rating is fair and rising, and she's led all of her potential Republican rivals in every PPP poll since last December, with one exception. But she's still below 50% job approval, and seldom cracks the 50% threshold with any of her likely rivals in head-to-heads. And perhaps most importantly: she probably won't be competing in as friendly an electorate as the one she rode in on in 2008.

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