Dissecting the Tillis memo on North Carolina’s Senate race

Spin largely overshadows analysis, but polling and fundraising give valuable context

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis’ reelection will be more difficult than a recent campaign memo appears to suggest, Rothenberg writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis’ reelection will be more difficult than a recent campaign memo appears to suggest, Rothenberg writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 9, 2020 at 1:24pm

ANALYSIS — Having written about campaigns and elections for the past 40 years, nothing perks me up more than a campaign memo. Usually filled with half-truths, misleading assessments and unflattering characterizations of the opponent, these memos sometimes offer a useful tidbit or two.

A memo from North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis’ campaign manager, Luke Blanchard, dated March 4, the day after the state’s primary set the general election matchup, is long and detailed, and I can’t possibly dissect all of it in 1,000 words. So I’ll scrutinize the most interesting parts.

Not surprisingly, the overview asserts that the Republican senator’s campaign “is in a very strong position both internally in terms of organization and resources, and externally in terms of the candidates’ positions on the issues.”

[Rating change: Bullock against Daines puts Montana in play]

It also asserts that Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham “enters the general election fully embracing the radical liberal agenda and having had to spend heavily in the primary.”

There is no thoughtful analysis about where the Tillis-Cunningham race begins or where it is headed — just the usual campaign fluff, an effort to paint Cunningham as a radical and a loser.

Selective polls

The meat starts to arrive in the next section, “Where the Race Stands.”

The memo cites a Jan. 11-15 Public Opinion Strategies survey showing Tillis leading Cunningham 48 percent to 44 percent. “Our numbers are similar to a poll released by ECU (East Carolina University) on March 1st that had Tillis leading Cunningham 44%-42%,” the memo notes.

I have always regarded POS highly, so I suggest we take their numbers at face value. Still, I have a few problems with the way the memo uses the survey.

First, the POS poll is almost two months old. Cunningham didn’t start airing his TV ads until late January (after the survey), and a Republican PAC didn’t start airing ads to help Cunningham’s more liberal opponent until late February.

Where does the race stand now? The POS survey doesn’t tell us.

[Jeff Sessions’ campaign calls Tuberville a ‘Florida man’]

The Feb. 27-28 ECU poll, conducted six weeks after the POS survey and in the middle of a primary, doesn’t support or undercut the original POS numbers. It’s a completely different animal, even though the Tillis memo seems to want to use it to validate the POS numbers.

Interestingly, the Tillis memo never mentions a Feb. 23-27 NBC News/Marist survey that showed Cunningham leading the GOP incumbent by 5 points, 48 percent to 43 percent.

But let’s return to what the memo does show.

Both the POS and ECU surveys have Tillis with a narrow lead. But the devil is in the details. In early tests of an incumbent’s strength, it’s more important to see where the incumbent is, not where the challenger is, since the challenger is still introducing himself or herself to the voters.

There is a notable difference between an incumbent starting off at 48 percent in the ballot test, as the POS survey showed, or at only 44 percent, as the ECU survey found.

The POS survey also showed a Republican leading in the Senate “generic ballot” by 2 points, 45 percent to 43 percent.

Am I supposed to be impressed by this? I’m not. That margin confirms that North Carolina is almost evenly divided.

Other factors

Moving on to the president’s standing in the state, the memo notes that President Donald Trump’s job approval was at 50 percent, a good number for Republicans and a reason why the memo so heavily links Tillis to Trump.

Unsurprisingly, the memo fails to note that the ECU poll mentioned earlier showed Joe Biden leading Trump 48 percent to 46 percent, and incumbent Democratic governor Roy Cooper ahead of his likely GOP challenger by 8 points.

The memo also notes that the POS survey showed North Carolinians preferring capitalism to socialism. That would be an interesting finding if Democrats were to nominate Bernie Sanders for president, but it’s not particularly relevant if Biden, Cunningham and Cooper lead the Democratic ticket in November.

The next section of the memo focuses on issues, so you won’t be surprised that it’s largely a list of Trump mentions and successes, along with a handful of comments about how far left the Democrats are. It’s pure campaign messaging, not analysis.

The next section on “organization & resources” is interesting.

The memo cites Tillis’ end-of-the-year cash advantage — $5.3 million to Cunningham’s $1.7 million — correctly noting that the Democrat had to spend heavily on his primary. But it then argues that the Tillis campaign’s “cash on hand ratio … was better than any incumbent Senator from either party facing a competitive race this cycle.”

Cash on hand ratio? Who uses that metric? Nobody.

According to the memo, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado have raised millions more than Tillis and have more on hand than he does, yet their “ratios” are smaller. Pure spin.

Here is the reality: Cunningham trails in cash on hand now, but he won’t lose the Senate race because of a lack of money.

He’ll raise tons of cash now that the primary is over, and national Democrats will make certain there is enough “outside” money to fund a top-tier race.

Indeed, the Tillis memo acknowledges that, observing, “We will likely be outraised in each quarter from here on out and will need to increase the pace of our fundraising in order to keep up.”

After proclaiming that the campaign has an “army of supporters who are ready to win in November,” the memo ends by calling Cunningham a “far-left liberal who supports radical presidential candidates outside the political mainstream in North Carolina.” In other words, more uninspiring messaging.

What’s the reality of the North Carolina Senate race?

The Tillis-Cunningham race starts off close and is likely to remain that way. Cunningham will have to overcome the very slight GOP edge in North Carolina. Trump won the state by 4 points in 2016, Mitt Romney by 2 points in 2012. Barack Obama did carry it in 2008, but only by three-tenths of a percentage point.

Tillis’s 1.5-point victory over Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan in 2014 was a true photo finish. And that was during Obama’s second midterm election, which surely benefited Republican challengers around the country. Now Trump is in the White House, and Tillis is running in a presidential year. Who knows what turnout will be?

Here’s my advice: Ignore the Tillis memo. It’s mostly useless. The North Carolina Senate race is one of the premier Senate races in the country. It’s a Toss-up — and a top Democratic target — as it has been for months.

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