The most expensive and one of the closest U.S. Senate races in the country will be decided in Tuesday’s election, ending months of bruising attacks levied in rallies and debates and amplified through an overwhelming onslaught of TV ads.
If nothing else, the $100 million-plus spent on the unceasing ads in North Carolina appears to have prodded more people to vote early.
Through Friday, more than 1 million ballots had been accepted through early or mail-in voting, setting up a record midterm early voting turnout once Saturday morning’s final votes are added. And a surprising surge of unaffiliated early voters has only added uncertainty to the outcome of the campaign between Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, and her challenger, Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis.
Across the Triangle on Saturday, long lines of voters braved the cold, wet conditions. About 1 p.m., hundreds were still in line at the Herb Young Community Center in Cary, and 274 were waiting at the Northern Regional Center in Wake Forest when poll workers stopped new people from joining the lines. Site supervisor Deb Lipman said all who were in line at 1 were able to vote; she said the last voters finished around 3:45 p.m.
Republicans are confident that this year will be a repeat of the midterm elections four years ago. Discontent with President Barack Obama in 2010 led to GOP gains in Congress and control of the N.C. General Assembly for the first time in 140 years.
That, in turn, led to Tillis’ rise to speaker and ultimately set the stage for this campaign. While Republicans have a good shot at taking control of the U.S. Senate, it isn’t known how North Carolina voters will react to Tillis’ role in championing controversial state laws.
Democrats are counting on a robust and more diverse turnout of voters to register their objections.
On Sunday, both campaigns and the interest groups aligned with them will flood North Carolina in a final push to get their voters to the polls on Election Day. “It really does come down to turnout,” said Francis X. DeLuca, president of the free-market Civitas Institute, a think tank that also conducts polls.
Early voting was so popular that some who went to the polls early were surprised by the long lines.
“We went to vote, and the line was down the street,” Linda Johnson said. She and her husband, William, both retired, vowed to return to the site in Cary. “We’ll be back. We will be voting. We always vote early.”
‘We’re sick of it’
Tuesday will tell how many of the state’s 6.6 million voters are inspired to participate. The U.S. Senate race has drawn intense scrutiny and tens of millions of dollars in outside money, as Republicans attempt to pick up six new seats in the Senate in order to gain control of the chamber. That would allow the party to control committees and bring legislation up for votes.
That’s why so much money is being spent – more than $100 million, making it likely to be the most expensive Senate race ever. The most visible result – a parade of mean-spirited and exaggerated political commercials on television and websites – has raised the profile. That could spur people to vote, or to avoid politics at all costs.
Edward Siferd, a middle-aged former Army officer from Cary, said he lived in Miami during the highly contentious vote count in Florida in the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
“Three out of every four commercials were about it,” Siferd said. “This is even worse. We’ve seen even more. We’re sick of it.”
High Point University is one of many organizations that have conducted periodic polls on the race and related issues. In a recent survey, it found only 39 percent of those asked thought negative ads affected their opinions about the two candidates, and 45 percent didn’t. At the same time, two-thirds think the ads affect other voters.
“Maybe that’s a hint that, in effect, we do believe these ads make a difference,” poll director Martin Kifer said. “It’s like people are trying to reconcile this idea that they’ve been told negative ads work, but they themselves don’t believe it.”
Patterns of early voters
Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College, has analyzed current and past voting data and spotted several significant patterns among those who have voted in person this year.
Democratic turnout, measured against the same day in 2010, is 24 percent higher, while Republicans have voted slightly above the same level. Of those who have voted early, 49 percent were registered Democrats and 31 percent Republicans.
There has been a stronger showing of African-American voters, 25 percent of the early voting, compared to 20 percent in 2010, which is expected to benefit Hagan.
Unaffiliated and Libertarian voters appear motivated this year. They have cast 1 in 5 of the early ballots, 42 percent more than they did over the same period in 2010. Thirty-two percent of these voters didn’t participate in the 2010 election in the state, Bitzer’s analysis shows.
“Their numbers are quite high compared to what we’ve traditionally seen,” Bitzer said of the early unaffiliated vote. “That adds a layer of who-knows-what going into Tuesday.”
Libertarian candidate Sean Haugh has polled as low as 2 percent and as high as 7 percent and could make a difference in the outcome only if the final results are really that close. Yet political analysts have been keeping an eye on him for what his candidacy might also represent: a siphoning of support for Tillis from Libertarians and the far right who might think the House speaker has not been true to conservative principles.
“It gives people who respond to ideology more than politics a place to go,” said Thomas Mills, a Democratic strategist in Raleigh. “If you’re talking about the election coming down to thousands or even hundreds of votes, a wedge between those people and Tillis could present a problem.”
DeLuca said Haugh is also attracting disaffected Democrats but said he has too few supporters to matter. A bigger issue, he said, is the potential lack of support for Tillis from a few on the right.
“He has some trouble with a small number of people who are very anti-establishment, very pitchfork – people like me,” DeLuca said. “Do I think at the end of the day they’re going to vote for Hagan? No, but he needs to keep them motivated and vote for him.”
Expect a call
And that’s what the strategy is for both sides two days before the election.
“You’re going to see a lot of phone calls, a lot of doors being knocked on, you’re going to see Thom out campaigning very hard,” said Tillis campaign manager Jordan Shaw. “For the people out there who haven’t voted yet, expect the phone to ring a few times between now and Election Day.”
The Hagan campaign is planning a drive that relies on a field staff it has been putting together over the past year, and is “really heavy on door knocks, a focus on face-to-face contact,” said Preston Elliot, her campaign manager.
Both camps claim to be optimistic about the early-voting numbers.
“We’ve been building a field program for almost a year now talking to North Carolina voters,” Elliot told reporters in a conference call Wednesday. “At this moment we’re really seeing those investments beginning to pay off.”
In an interview that night, Shaw noted that Republicans tend to wait until Election Day. “We’re excited. We like what we see,” he said. “We think the numbers are pretty consistent with what we’ve been planning for.”
DeLuca says Hagan should be suffering from voters’ concerns about the economy and an unpopular president. “In spite of that, she’s still holding even in the polling,” he said. “Tillis should be (ahead), but he hasn’t managed to do it.”
Kifer, the High Point University pollster, confirmed that the economy is still the biggest issue. In the recent poll, close to half said they were worse off than a year ago, and a majority said they expected to be neither better nor worse a year from now. “Those are real pessimistic numbers,” he said.
Democrats have also been collecting and refining an unprecedented amount of data on North Carolina voters during the past six years to help them identify potential Hagan supporters who might be reluctant to show up at the polls.
“That’s a big advantage in the turnout battle,” DeLuca said.
Outside groups also began ramping up their efforts with the close of early voting.
Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Cecile Richards will return to the Triangle on Sunday to join what the organization calls its largest-ever get-out-the-vote program. Volunteers have already knocked on more than 300,000 doors and made more than 130,000 phone calls, it says.
On the other side of the abortion rights issue: the Susan B. Anthony List, which claims to have made nearly 250,000 calls and knocked on almost 140,000 doors.
Turnout, all agree, is vital.
Turnout had been fairly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats until 2010, when 51 percent of registered Republicans voted, compared to 45 percent of registered Democrats. And that changed everything.