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WRAL poll: Pandemic becoming factor in fall elections

Posted April 28, 2020 5:49 p.m. EDT
Updated April 28, 2020 7:56 p.m. EDT

— The general elections are still more than six months away, but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is playing a major role in how voters are sizing up incumbent politicians, according to a WRAL News poll released Tuesday.

SurveyUSA conducted the exclusive poll on April 23-26, contacting 604 registered voters across North Carolina, 580 of whom said they would likely vote in the November elections. Most of the poll's questions have credibility intervals of plus or minus 5.3 to 5.5 percentage points.

Seventy percent of likely voters said President Donald Trump's handling of the pandemic would factor into how they will vote for president, while nearly three-quarters said Gov. Roy Cooper's actions in responding to the public health emergency would play a role in their voting in the gubernatorial election. But only 47 percent said Republican U.S. Thom Tillis' response would affect how they vote in the Senate race this fall.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the lone Democrat left in the race to challenge Trump, would edge the Republican president in North Carolina by a 50-45 percent margin if the vote were held now, according to the poll. Among voters who say Trump's handling of coronavirus is a major factor, Biden leads 61 to 34 percent, but Trump is ahead among voters who call the pandemic a minor factor in the race and those who say it plays no role in how they will vote.

Overall, Trump has small leads among male voters and Hispanic voters, 20-point leads among whites and rural voters and sizable leads among Protestants and Catholics. Meanwhile, Biden has a 15-point lead among female voters, a 70-point lead among blacks, a 25-point lead among moderates and sizable leads among working-class voters and people who have gone to college.

"I think part of it is Joe Biden, the fact that he’s the presumptive nominee as opposed to Bernie Sanders," Meredith College political science professor David McLennan said. "I think North Carolinians have some familiarity with Joe Biden, see him as someone they can trust. If it were Sanders, we might see the numbers reversed."

In the race for governor, Cooper would easily win re-election over Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest by a 57-30 percent margin if the election were held today, according to the poll. The two men are effectively in a dead heat among voters who don't consider Trump's handling of the pandemic a factor in the election, and Forest has a narrow lead among voters who say Cooper's stay-at-home order and other actions are unlikely to play a role in how they vote.

But Cooper holds leads of between 56-29 percent and 69-21 percent among voters who call Trump's and Cooper's actions during the pandemic a minor or major factor in the November elections.

Overall, Cooper holds leads – usually sizable ones – among all demographic groups aside from evangelical Christians, where Forest leads by 67 to 24 percent. Also, only 62 percent of Republicans said they would vote for Forest in the race, compared with 92 percent who plan to back Trump and 72 percent voting for Tillis.

"He’s leading handily right now. I think a lot of that can be attributed to how he’s managing the situation in North Carolina," McLennan said. "His approval ratings have gone up, and Dan just can’t get his name out there like Roy Cooper can. That shows where we are right now."

Cooper's net job approval is up 23 points since SurveyUSA's last North Carolina poll, released 10 weeks ago – before the pandemic hit the state. In the earlier poll, Cooper was at plus-15, with 50 percent of respondents approving of the job he was doing and 35 percent disapproving. Now, Cooper is at plus-38, with 65 percent approval and 27 percent disapproval. Even among Republican voters, Cooper's net approval has gone from plus-33 to plus-50 during the pandemic.

By comparison, Trump's approval has gone from minus-7 to even over the past 10 weeks. Now, 49 percent of respondents say they approve of the job he is doing, and 49 percent disapprove.

Forest has been openly critical of how Cooper has addressed the pandemic, first questioning whether he had the authority to halt dine-in service at North Carolina restaurants and bars and later pressing for an end to the stay-at-home order that shuttered many businesses statewide.

Tillis' net approval has gone from minus-4 to plus-6. In the latest poll, 42 percent of respondents approve of the job he's doing, compared with 36 percent who disapprove.

If the Senate election were held now, Tillis and Democrat Cal Cunningham are effectively tied, with 20 percent of voters still undecided. Trump's and Cooper's handling of the pandemic also plays into this race, with Tillis winning easily among those who say it's not a factor in the election, Cunningham winning easily among those who call it a major factor and a dead heat between the two among those who call pandemic response a minor factor.

Overall, Tillis has a 10-point lead among men, 15-point leads among whites and Protestants and a 12-point lead among rural voters. Cunningham has an 11-point lead among women, a 40-point lead among blacks, a 19-point lead among moderates, a 12-point lead among working-class voters and a 24-point lead among city dwellers.

"The Senate race is interesting," McLennan said. "It’s anticipated being a close race because Tillis doesn’t have the approval ratings Trump does in North Carolina. So, we knew that the Democrats would run a competitive race."

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