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Poll: Supreme Court process more important in NC's Senate race than Cunningham's affair

Posted October 12, 2020 4:00 p.m. EDT
Updated October 12, 2020 7:08 p.m. EDT

— North Carolina voters don't seem to mind that Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham had an affair – he's even gained ground among male voters – according to the results of a WRAL News poll released Monday.

SurveyUSA polled 669 likely and actual voters statewide between last Thursday and Sunday for the exclusive poll, which also found that the push for the Senate to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill an open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court before the Nov. 3 election also tilts in favor of Cunningham at the expense of Republican Sen. Thom Tillis. The poll's responses have confidence intervals of +/- 4.5 to 4.8 percentage points.

Cunningham now holds a 49-39 percent lead over Tillis, who is seeking a second six-year term. That lead is up from 47-40 percent in Cunningham's favor from a WRAL News poll conducted four weeks earlier.

"It turns out the president, the governor and the Republican senator move in a sort of lockstep. and so, you can't look at Tillis' performance and Cunningham's performance in isolation," said Jay Leve, chief executive of SurveyUSA. "I think Tillis would prefer if he were on the ballot alone, and the governor's race and the presidential race were not happening. Then the spotlight would be squarely on Cunningham's performance."

Meredith College political science professor David McLennan said he was surprised by Cunningham's lead growing.

"By and large, people's votes are locked in," McLennan said. "Republicans are going to vote for Tillis. Democrats are going to vote for Cunningham."

While Cunningham still holds a sizable lead among women at 54-37 percent, Tillis ate into part of that lead – it was 54-30 percent a month ago – by picking up support from women who had been undecided in the race. Meanwhile, Tillis' 11-point lead among men from a month ago has evaporated, with Cunningham now holding a slight 45-43 percent edge.

Much has happened to affect the race between the two polls:

More than 60 percent of poll respondents said Cunningham's affair had no impact on their votes in the upcoming election, with 20 percent saying they would be much more likely to support Tillis now. Voters ages 65 and older had the sharpest reaction, with 29 percent saying they would be much more likely to back Tillis. Wealthier and more educated voters also were more likely than poorer and less educated voters to say that the affair would have an impact on how they vote.

"You have a specific action-reaction: Women see [the affair] as appalling behavior from a man, and a man sort of sees it as, 'Well, he's not so much of a church lady as I thought, this Cunningham fellow," Leve said, adding that the evolution in the public's expectations about politicians' private lives that has benefited President Donald Trump in recent years is now helping Cunningham.

In the overall contest, Tillis leads Cunningham among voters 65 and older 50-44 percent, reversing Cunningham's 49-41 percent lead a month ago. Meanwhile, Cunningham has dramatically widened his lead among voters ages 18 to 49, from 8 points last month to 20 points in the latest poll. Cunningham also picked up more support among moderate voters, city dwellers and those who describe themselves as wealthy or upper middle class, while Tillis had stronger results in the latest poll among rural voters and those who describe themselves as middle class.

Regarding the Supreme Court nomination process, which began Monday with Tillis and other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, 21 percent said it made them somewhat or much more likely to Support Tillis, while 27 percent said they would be somewhat or much more likely to back Cunningham. Thirty-nine percent said it would have no impact on their vote, while 13 percent weren't sure.

Moderates were four times as likely to favor Cunningham because of the Supreme Court issue – 37 percent to 9 percent for Tillis. The issue broke sharply along economic lines, with those who describe themselves as wealthy or upper middle class splitting 33 percent for Tillis to 25 percent for Cunningham. Meanwhile, 45 percent of those who say they're poor said the Supreme Court process would make them more likely to back Cunningham, compared with only 2 percent for Tillis.

"This is about who comes out to vote in the remaining three weeks," McLennan said. "There's no evidence that Barrett's nomination process is going to favor one party or the other."

When it comes to Tillis' coronavirus infection, 58 percent of those polled said it has no impact on their vote, while 10 percent said they would be more likely to vote for him because of it and 23 percent said they're now more likely to vote for Cunningham.

Again, moderates broke strongly for Cunningham on this issue – 28 percent to 5 percent for Tillis – as did minority voters and those who describe themselves as poor, working class or middle class. Cunningham also holds a 4-point lead over Tillis among the wealthiest voters on the virus issue.

"People are a lot more unforgiving about the COVID situation, and I read into that that Tillis has no one to blame but himself," Leve said. "Voters, to a certain extent, tie the Republican Tillis to a somewhat more cavalier, reckless attitude about the pandemic that is coming from the head of the Republican Party in the White House."

McLennan said that not only did Tillis' infection point to the seriousness of a pandemic that Trump has frequently downplayed, it also suggested hypocrisy on the senator's part for not wearing a mask at the White House when he has spoken about the need to wear one.

WRAL anchor/reporters Cullen Browder and David Crabtree contributed to this report.

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