An early look at the presidential landscape in North Carolina indicates that the Tar Heel State will be hotly contested in 2020, with some warning signs in sight for President Trump.
North Carolina, a GOP stronghold for decades, has been more competitive the past three presidential elections, going narrowly for Barack Obama in 2008 before flipping back to the GOP column in 2012 and 2016. Trump carried it by 3.7 percentage points in his 2016 Electoral College win over Hillary Clinton.
The first North Carolina poll of the 2020 cycle from Public Policy Polling has Trump locked in close races with each of the six Democratic candidates the poll tested. He trails Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, ties Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, and holds 1-point leads over Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker.
As PPP noted in the write-up it released along with the poll, how the candidates fared against Trump aligned neatly with the candidates’ name recognition. Biden and Sanders, the two candidates with the highest name recognition, lead Trump by 5 and 3 percentage points, respectively. The four other candidates have far lower name recognition and, not coincidentally, don’t fare as well in hypothetical matchups against Trump.
PPP does polling on behalf of progressive clients in addition to its public polling, but its polling has not had a consistent bias in favor of Democrats. (In fact, there have been cycles in which its polls have been biased against Democrats. Fivethirtyeight gives the firm a “B” in its highly regarded pollster ratings.
What follows is a closer look at the poll, and what it may tell us about the 2020 landscape.
North Carolina Poll Overview: Signs That Trump Is Vulnerable
Polls almost two years out from a general election don’t have great predictive value, but they do offer some clues about the political landscape. With that in mind, the PPP poll has some data that should concern Trump. Trump’s approval rating is under water in the state, with 46 percent of registered voters approving of his performance and 50 percent disapproving, according to the PPP poll. Trump’s horse race performance and approval rating are strongly correlated. He gets between 44 percent and 46 percent of the vote, depending on the opponent. His best showings were leading Booker and O’Rourke 46 percent to 45 percent.
Those numbers are noteworthy since the North Carolina contest will be playing out on slightly red-leaning turf. North Carolina is about 6 percentage points more GOP-leaning that the country overall. A scenario in which the Democratic nominee wins North Carolina is likely to be one in which she or he wins the national popular vote by a greater margin than Hillary Clinton’s 2-point popular vote margin in 2016. When Obama carried it by less than a percentage point against John McCain in 2008, he won the national popular vote by more than 7 percentage points.
Trump carried five states — Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida and Arizona — by smaller margins in 2016 than his margin in North Carolina. (His margin was also slimmer in Nebraska’s second congressional district, which awards its own electoral vote.) If the Democratic nominee were to win every state that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, then win any three of the aforementioned states, she or he could win the Electoral College without needing to win North Carolina.
In the state-wide popular vote in U.S. House races, North Carolina was also more GOP-leaning than Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona in 2018, when GOP candidates earned 50.4 percent of the total votes cast and Democratic candidates earned 48.4 percent. The PPP poll shows Trump under-performing that performance. (It also shows Democratic governor Roy Cooper over-performing relative to House Democrats. Cooper, who ousted incumbent governor Pat McCrory in 2016, leads prospective GOP challengers by anywhere from 4 to 14 percentage points.)
Were the Democratic nominee to carry every state in which Democrats won a majority of the 2018 House popular vote, the Democrat would earn 296 electoral votes — enough to win the election with some modest breathing room.
Jim Williams, a polling analyst for PPP, said Trump’s horse race numbers have tracked even more closely with his approval rating than you’d typically expect for an incumbent.
“Part of that is a function of people’s opinions of Trump being baked in,” Williams said. “It doesn’t matter if you put him up against someone very well known like Joe Biden or someone less well-known like Beto O’Rourke or Amy Klobuchar.”
Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump: Early Advantage Goes to Biden
Biden, who’s said to be in the final stages of deciding whether to launch a campaign, has consistently led national Democratic primary polls, thanks to near-universal name recognition and through-the-roof favorability ratings. The same advantages Biden has had in primary surveys show up in PPP’s North Carolina poll. Voters view Biden more favorably than any other candidate in the field, and he performs the best against Trump.
Here are some highlights of the Biden-Trump matchup:
- Biden leads Trump 49 percent to 45 percent in PPP’s survey of registered voters.
- 44 percent of voters have a favorable view of Biden, while 38 percent have an unfavorable view and 18 percent aren’t sure. He’s the only candidate in the field with a positive favorable/unfavorable split.
- 9 percent of 2016 Trump voters say they would vote for Biden over Trump, while only 2 percent of Clinton voters say they would vote for Trump over Biden.
- Biden leads Trump by 20 percentage points — 57 percent to 37 — among women.
- Trump leads Biden by 12 percentage points — 52 percent to 40 percent — among men.
Bernie Sanders vs. Donald Trump: Slight Early Advantage Goes to Sanders
Sanders, the Democratic runner-up in 2016, has also said he’s considering a run, though he’ll have plenty of competition to earn the support of primary voters who supported him in 2016. The Vermont senator has also faced accusations that there was widespread sexual harassment and gender discrimination in his 2016 campaign organization. Still, he’s very well-known, and while his favorability numbers don’t match Biden’s, the PPP North Carolina poll has him with a slight lead over Trump.
Here are some highlights of the Sanders-Trump matchup:
- Sanders leads Trump 48 percent to 45 percent among registered voters
- 38 percent of voters have a favorable view of Sanders; 47 percent have an unfavorable view, while 15 percent aren’t sure. His unfavorable score is the highest of any candidate.
- Among 2016 Clinton voters, Sanders leads Trump 90 percent to 3 percent.
- Among 2016 Trump voters, Trump leads Sanders 88 percent to 9 percent.
- Sanders leads Trump 55 percent to 39 percent among women.
- Trump leads Sanders 51 percent to 40 percent among men.
Elizabeth Warren vs. Donald Trump: Dead Even
Elizabeth Warren is the one candidate tested in the PPP poll who’s already formed an exploratory committee — a step that almost always leads to a candidate declaring her or his candidacy. Warren has been hiring campaign staff and visiting early voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. Warren, one of Trump’s chief antagonists — and chief targets — in politics, is dead even with Trump in North Carolina, with each candidate attracting 46 percent of the vote.
Here are some highlights of the Warren-Trump matchup:
- Warren and Trump are tied at 46 percent among registered voters
- 34 percent of voters view Warren favorably; 43 percent view her unfavorably, while 23 percent aren’t sure.
- 7 percent of 2016 Trump voters say they’d vote for Warren over Trump; only 2 percent of 2016 Clinton voters say they’d vote for Trump over Warren.
- Warren leads Trump 54 percent to 39 percent among women.
- Trump leads Warren 54 percent to 38 percent among men.
Kamala Harris vs. Donald Trump: Dead Even
Harris, who’s two years into her first term in the Senate, is expected to enter the race imminently — perhaps as soon as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In the meantime, she’s been making the TV rounds and promoting her newly released memoir and children’s book. Like Warren, Harris is deadlocked with Trump at 45 percent apiece.
Here are some highlights of the Harris-Trump matchup:
- Harris and Trump are tied at 45 percent among registered voters.
- 24 percent of voters have a favorable view of Harris; 31 percent have an unfavorable view, while a plurality — 45 percent — say they’re not sure. Beto O’Rourke is the only Democrat the poll tested about whom fewer voters had formed an opinion.
- 7 percent of 2016 Trump voters say they’d vote for Harris over Trump; 4 percent of 2016 Clinton voters said they’d vote for Trump over Harris
- Harris leads Trump 52 percent to 37 percent among women.
- Trump leads Harris 52 percent to 40 percent among men.
- Harris and Booker — the two non-white candidates the poll surveyed — perform about as well among both black voters and white voters as O’Rourke and Warren. Among black voters, Harris leads Trump 82 percent to 7 percent; among white voters, she trails 59 percent to 33 percent. O’Rourke actually does slightly better among black voters, leading 82 percent to 5 percent, and slightly worse among white voters, trailing 60 percent to 33 percent.
Beto O’Rourke vs. Donald Trump: Trump up 1
In a little over a year, Beto O’Rourke went from being a little-known congressman from El Paso, Texas to being one of the frontrunners to win the Democratic nomination. O’Rourke, who narrowly lost his race against incumbent Senator Ted Cruz last year in Texas, consistently placing in the top three of national Democratic primary surveys and surveys of potential Iowa caucus-goers. He’s jockeying with Harris for the role as the betting favorite to win the nomination. Still, he has the lowest name recognition among North Carolina voters of the candidates included in the PPP poll — a contributing factor to O’Rourke trailing Trump by 1 percentage point, 46 percent to 45 percent.
Here are some highlights of the O’Rourke-Trump matchup:
- Trump leads O’Rourke 46 percent to 45 percent among registered voters.
- 21 percent of voters have a favorable view of O’Rourke; 34 percent have an unfavorable view, while 46 percent aren’t sure. The “not sure” total is the highest among any candidate, while his minus-13 net favorability rating is tied with Harris for the lowest in the field.
- 5 percent of 2016 Trump voters say they’d support O’Rourke over Trump, while 3 percent of 2016 Clinton voters say they’d support Trump over O’Rourke.
- O’Rourke leads Trump 51 percent to 38 percent among women.
- Trump leads O’Rourke 54 percent to 37 percent among men.
Cory Booker vs. Donald Trump: Trump up 1
Booker, considered a rising star in Democratic politics since his tenure as mayor of Newark, New Jersey, is also widely expected to join the race, though he’s displayed fewer overt signs that he’s gearing up for an imminent run than some of the other potential candidates. CNBC reported January 8 that Booker, Harris, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — who’s also expected to run — have met with Wall Street donors in anticipation of running. The news outlet quoted one “top New York donor” as saying the person recently had tea with Booker and that “the meetings aren’t officially about running, but of course they are about running in 2020.”
Here are some highlights of the Booker-Trump matchup:
- Trump leads Booker 46 percent to 45 percent among registered voters.
- 26 percent of voters have a favorable opinion of Booker; 33 percent have an unfavorable view, while 40 percent aren’t sure. The “not sure” total is lower than the totals for O’Rourke and Harris but far higher than the totals for Sanders (15 percent), Biden (18 percent) or Warren (23 percent.)
- 6 percent of 2016 Trump voters say they’d vote for Booker over Trump; 5 percent of 2016 Clinton voters say they’d vote for Trump over Booker.
- Booker leads Trump 51 percent to 39 percent among women.
- Trump leads Booker 55 percent to 37 percent among men.
The PPP poll was conducted January 4 through January 7 via phone (79 percent of respondents) and an opt-in internet panel (21 percent.) The poll has a margin of error of +/- 3.6 percent.