It’s All About Turnout, Really!

The US Senate race in North Carolina is shaping up to be one of the most expensive in history with over $30 million spent by Labor Day on advertising. In addition, national media are focused on the race, including the first debate between Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis. Despite the amount of money spent and the attention paid to the debate, the race is essentially dead-even.

In recent weeks, the campaigns and the independent expenditure groups have made subtle, but important shifts in campaign strategy that indicates that both sides recognize that turning the right groups out to vote will determine the outcome of the race.

The Tillis campaign has pivoted toward attacking Kay Hagan on foreign policy–specifically on her failure to attend Senate Armed Forces committee hearings and her lack of attention to the ISIS threat. Current polling data suggest a gender gap in terms of how men and women want the United States to deal with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the campaign’s focus is now in turning out men on the security issue.

In the last two weeks the Hagan campaign and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee have coordinated a major radio buy targeting African Americans by continuing to attack Tillis’ record on education and also to raise Tillis’ role in passing sweeping reforms to voting laws in North Carolina, including the Voter ID component that many minorities feel will suppress their turnout.

Outside groups have also gotten involved with ads targeting very specific demographic groups in North Carolina. The National Rifle Association has reserved $1.4 million in North Carolina, primarily in Raleigh-Durham and Greensboro markets, to support the Tillis campaign. Planned Parenthood has invested $500,000 in the Senate race, primarily in the Raleigh-Durham market to support the reelection of Kay Hagan. The issues of gun ownership and women’s reproductive rights are heavily gendered issues and indicate the importance of motivating these groups.

Analysis of voter turnout in 2010, along with examining how the campaigns and independent expenditure groups have sharpened their respective focuses, indicates that seven counties in the state will largely determine outcome of the Senate campaign–Cumberland, Edgecombe, Guilford, Halifax, Pitt, Wake, and Wayne counties.

Guilford and Wake counties are large counties with significant numbers of suburban voters where the turnout of men and women will significantly impact the outcome of the Senate race. In 2010, Guilford County men and women turned out significantly less than the state averages for both. Only 41 percent of the registered men and 40 percent of the registered women turned out. If either side can create a 3-4 percent gender gap, it could significantly impact the outcome of the race. Wake County, on the other hand, saw turnout for men and women at rates higher than the state average with 48 percent of the men and women turning out. With women registered voters outnumbering men by over 45,000 voters in Wake County, continued high turnout of women voters could give Kay Hagan the margin she needs to win the race. The Tillis campaign must significantly increase the male voters in both counties if he hopes to win the Senate seat.

The other five counties–Cumberland, Edgecombe, Halifax, Pitt, and Wayne–have high percentages of African American voters, who turned out, with the exception of in Cumberland County, at or near the state average. Slight increases in African American voters in these counties could also give the Hagan campaign a comfortable margin. The Hagan campaign would feel very confident if the African American turnout in these counties was 46 percent or higher, while the Tillis campaign would benefit from a turnout in the low 40 percent range.

Identity politics makes people very uncomfortable and causes people to criticize candidates that appeal to that form of campaigning. The reality is, that in 2014, the US Senate race is not about either Thom Tillis or Kay Hagan, but about the identity voters than choose to vote on November 4.

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