Is there going to be a runoff in the North Carolina Democratic Senate primary? It's certainly possible but if I was a betting man I'd put my money against it.
When we polled the Senate primary seven weeks ago Elaine Marshall and Cal Cunningham were combining for 36% with the rest of the candidates combining for 17%. When we polled it this week Marshall and Cunningham were combining for 49% with the rest of the candidates still combining for the identical 17%. All of the movement in the race over the last seven weeks has been toward the two front runners, which is no surprise given their considerable advantage in resources.
Given that trend I expect the vast, vast majority of the 34% of voters who remain undecided to move toward Marshall or Cunningham and that should be enough to put one of them over the 40% mark if only by a small amount.
If the undecideds broke in proportion to their current preferences on this week's poll Marshall would just barely cross the runoff threshold at 40% with Cunningham getting 34%. But that calculation assumes that the four second tier candidates would combine to receive a quarter of the vote from the remaining undecideds. Given that those voters will be seeing a lot of Cunningham and Marshall on tv this week and none of the rest of the candidates it seems more likely that 90% or so of those voters who haven't made their minds up yet will go toward one of them.
That's the argument for why there won't be a runoff and I think there's a 60-70% chance that will be the case. What would cause the race to go to another seven weeks? Kenneth Lewis and Marcus Williams picking up more support than the polls are showing for them, and that could certainly happen. Two years ago no one took Williams seriously and he ended up getting a surprising 12% in the primary, within earshot of the 18% of Jim Neal who was treated like a top tier candidate when Williams was not. It's also possible that Lewis' radio advertising in the final week will help him to pick up the support of black voters that he had been expected to receive but which hasn't materialized yet. Neither of them has a real chance at getting in the top two, but if their level of support is larger than we are currently measuring it could be enough to prevent someone from winning outright.
We're doing our final primary poll this weekend...any suggestions for good questions we could put on the poll to help us get a better understanding of why what happens happens? Safe to say there will be no exit polling in the state on Tuesday night so whatever we ask will probably have to suffice for interpretation of the final results.