There’s something puzzling about the latest PPP poll of likely voters on North Carolina’s gubernatorial race. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and his Democratic challenger, Attorney General Roy Cooper, are virtually tied, with Cooper edging McCrory 43 percent to 42 percent.
Why aren’t they both ahead? I realize that’s impossible, but the question gets to the oddity of this race.
McCrory should be leading handily. Since state law changed in the 1970s to allow governors to seek re-election, an incumbent has never lost a bid for a second term (although Democrat Bev Perdue sort of did by abandoning her 2012 plans to run for a second term). Given the power of incumbency, McCrory should be dominating this race in the polls and in fundraising. Instead, he trails in both.
McCrory has more than just a standard incumbent’s advantage. His party has total control of the General Assembly, and the state Supreme Court is more than favorable to Republican issues.
McCrory also has what should be political gold – tax cuts. Since he took office in January 2013, the governor has signed tax cuts that have saved taxpayers – albeit mostly wealthy people and big corporations – billions of dollars.
Finally, McCrory has his “Carolina Comeback.” It’s fiction that his actions have done much to help the state economy, but still he’s in office while a national recovery is lifting all ships.
So, to review, an incumbent governor has never lost, McCrory’s party has control of three branches of government, the legislature and governor have been raining tax cuts, the state economy is improving, indeed booming in some urban areas. And McCrory isn’t winning.
What’s wrong? It starts with McCrory’s making poor use of the incumbency. He has alienated most state employees with a lack of pay increases, stripping some of civil service protections and vowing to weed out “seat warmers.” He lacks a strong Cabinet, and several department secretaries have left. He’s skittish about engaging a broad range of the public and holding news conferences. He prefers safe Chamber of Commerce settings. The Republican income tax cuts have been offset by expansion of the sales tax. He has followed the legislature rather than setting his own agenda.
On that last point, Exhibit A is House Bill 2. Social-issue zealots pushed the limits on gay and transgender rights in the legislature, and McCrory signed the so-called “bathroom bill” into law thinking it would put Cooper in the awkward spot of defending transgender people’s rights to use a bathroom that matches the gender with which they identify. It has had the opposite effect, making McCrory a spokesman for intolerance and causing costly economic damage to the state that contradicts his comeback claims.
McCrory has no grand plans for the state and tends toward self-inflicted troubles such as his current attack on state toxicologist Ken Rudo. That has put McCrory’s ties to his former employer, Duke Energy, back on center stage with less than 90 days until the election.
All of this translates into Cooper’s being lucky in his opponent. So why isn’t he well ahead?
One reason is that Cooper, despite 15 years in statewide office, isn’t well-known. In the PPP poll, 30 percent of voters had no opinion of him. That’s understandable to an extent. In most states, most people don’t know who their state attorney general is. But Cooper has been fencing with McCrory for years and has been the top state Democrat at a time when state Republicans have been drawing national attention for their conservative agenda. He has had opportunities to engage and emerge, but hasn’t.
That Cooper hasn’t been more prominent speaks to his low-key style and cautious manner. In a way, he’s taking Hillary Clinton’s approach to Donald Trump. He’s letting McCrory twist in the HB2 spotlight while he cultivates the role of the sensible and tolerant option.
But taking the safe course may prove risky for Cooper. If he’s counting on McCrory to alienate enough voters, he may fail to attract enough himself. At some point, Cooper will have to take a chance by taking a stand. It won’t be enough to be the nice guy from Nashville. Voters want someone who will fight for them.
Cooper’s platform is strong on Democratic priorities, but so far his presence isn’t. That will change after Labor Day, or at least that’s what his people hope. But campaigns tend to reflect the nature of the candidate. If Cooper is holding back on his secret supply of charisma, he better bring it out soon.
Incumbent governors rarely lose and for Cooper to have even a slight lead speaks well of him and his strategy. But for now, this race remains a riddle: Why aren’t they both clearly ahead?
Postscript: An NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll released Friday may have solved part of the riddle. It has Cooper leading McCrory among registered voters 51 percent to 44 percent. The new gap may reflect Donald Trump’s bad week atop the GOP presidential ticket. The PPP poll with a margin of error of +/- 3.4 percent was conducted Aug. 5 through Aug. 7. The Marist Poll with a margin of error of +/- 3.2 percent was conducted Aug. 4 through Aug. 10. Most polls so far show the governor’s race as a near tie.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, firstname.lastname@example.org