Hagan vs. Tillis a toss-up? Not so fast

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 17, 2014

Now that we’re entering the home stretch of summer, North Carolinians will come back from the beach, get the kids ready for school, and some may start to pay attention to the looming general election. So it might be wise to take stock of where things stand in what has been described as a “nondescript, virtually unnoticed, hugely important Senate race” and “the quietest close race in the country.”
For the most part, the polls have seemed to indicate the Kay Hagan-Thom Tillis race is still too close to call. At Real Clear Politics, the summer polls gave Hagan a slight edge, most likely because the General Assembly’s short session has dragged on and appears to be headed through Election Day. But now, as the traditional start of the general campaign of Labor Day is just around the corner, the race continues its “toss-up” classification.
One thing notable about past polls is that both Hagan and Tillis have rarely been able to crack the high 40s in their polling, with a recent CBS/New York Times/YouGov poll giving the Republican challenger 48 percent to the Democratic incumbent’s 47 percent.
And while most analysts — including those at the Cook Political Report, the Rothenberg Political Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball — rate the race as a coin toss going into the final phase, it’s worth noting both some internal and external factors that may give us some sense of which way the coin will fall.
First, Americans are not just unhappy with Congress (which continues its record dismal approval rating), but have turned against their own members of Congress as well.
Normally, we tend to see Americans say “throw the bums out, except for my member of Congress.” But now Americans are saying that all members of Congress should be thrown out, including their own member of Congress, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
That doesn’t bode well for incumbents like Kay Hagan, who has never had generally high approval ratings to begin with.
Another national factor that may be in play is that while there is no dominant theme to this year’s election so far (unlike in the anti-Bush Democratic wave of 2006 or the anti-Obama wave of 2010), the sentiment going into the fall may be that “everything is terrible,” and that President Obama’s disapproval ratings may be reflecting just that sentiment, and that worries Democrats.
The third national factor may focus on why voters will show up in November: while Democrats and Republicans are often tied in the “generic” ballot, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, the GOP maintains a level of energy and enthusiasm that is the hallmark of mid-term congressional elections against the party in control of the White House. A number of polls have shown this “enthusiasm” gap as a major hindrance to Democrats going into the fall.
Finally, the fourth factor is more state-level than national, and that is “who casts ballots?”
According to data from the North Carolina State Board of Elections’ web site, the past five general elections have seen a variety of turnout by registered party affiliation. While voter turnout can hit the high 60s to 70s in presidential years, turnout can range from the high 30s to the mid-40s for non-presidential years in North Carolina.
And more importantly, the disparity within party affiliation is notable as well.
In all of the general elections since 2004, the great increase of unaffiliated voters simply doesn’t translate into turnout when it comes to casting ballots. In 2006’s Democratic wave election, Democrats and Republicans tied in turnout, while the 2010 Tea Party-inspired GOP wave saw half of registered Republicans vote, with only 44 percent of registered Democrats doing the same.
Barely a third of unaffiliated voters in 2010, and not even 30 percent showed up to vote in 2006. If unaffiliated (i.e. independent) voters are not happy with either party, both Hagan and Tillis might want to focus more on their respective party bases.
Granted, many things can happen between the middle of August and the November election, but with this kind of political environment — nobody happy, one side more energized and a history of those great “swing” voters deciding not to show up — it doesn’t take much to sense that this is more a lean-GOP race for the U.S. Senate rather than a coin toss.
Dr. Michael Bitzer is provost and a political science professor at Catawba College. This column first appeared as his blog for WFAE, The Party Line.