RALEIGH — North Carolina will hold a Republican gubernatorial primary on July 20, but if my current reading is correct, the temperature of the race has yet to rise above 60 degrees. Some political observers have interpreted this fact as suggesting that there won’t be a competitive race for governor this year. That is premature, as a new Mason-Dixon poll of North Carolina voters illustrates.
Taken for WRAL-TV in Raleigh, the Winston-Salem Journal, and several other news organizations, the statewide survey examined a variety of political races. Wednesday’s data release concerned the governor’s race, in which Democrat Mike Easley is seeking re-election and a host of Republicans is seeking to prevent that.
Some of the media take on the findings suggested that Easley is an “early favorite” in the race. Taken literally, this is true. When matched up against any of his potential GOP antagonists, Easley pulled between 52 percent and 55 percent of the vote. His negatives are low at 13 percent, though his positives are also relatively low at 48 percent. Lots of North Carolinians still don’t have a strong opinion about their first-term governor, and it shows. This means that the race remains fluid — being an “early favorite” isn’t all that meaningful in this context.
It would have been valuable, for example, if the survey had included a question on Easley’s job-approval rating, which gets at the electorate’s opinion not only of the incumbent as a person but also how state government has been performing and whether the state is headed in the right direction. If Easley’s job approval rating was significantly over 50 percent, the talk about an “early favorite” would be more relevant to the coming general election. It might also have been helpful to ask a generic “would you re-elect Easley?” question, but apparently it was not.
The Mason-Dixon numbers show that none of the Republicans has made much of an impression on the voters, either. Former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot is the most well-known, with nearly 80 percent recognition among voters, with about a quarter favorable and a fifth unfavorable. Bill Cobey was recognized by 51 percent, Patrick Ballantine by 47 percent, and the remaining candidates by very few. If the candidates are relatively unknown, then it’s likely voters aren’t thinking much about the issues of the race, either. Again, the situation is fluid.
Of course, the fluidity of the GOP nomination fight (which Mason-Dixon examines with an oversample of 400 Republican voters) matters a lot more right now than the general-election dynamic does. For all those who watched only the fundraising totals and Triangle-area political chatter, Richard Vinroot’s chances for another round with Easley looked improbable. They were wrong. Vinroot is currently winning about 42 percent of those Republican voters expressing a preference — enough to clinch the nomination without a runoff, as he did (again surprising some political “experts”) in the 2000 race. Because about a third of GOP voters remain uncommitted, Cobey and Ballantine, at least, still have a shot at bringing Vinroot down below the 40-percent threshold, thus forcing an August runoff, but right now it is highly likely that Vinroot’s campaign will survive past July 20. Will another?
The headline here is that the North Carolina governor’s race is far from over.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.