Relitigating the 2020 NC Senate Race

So, there’s an interesting new behind the scenes about what went down with the sex scandal in Cal Cunningham’s campaign.  I learned about it from a tweet, which led me to follow-up with the following:

And, hey, a mini twitter spat.

Anyway, an animal lover followed up with a link to this great Miles Coleman analysis from April that I had somehow missed.

Now, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that the sexual controversy might have cost Cunningham the election, but I also think a fair reading of the evidence very much suggests otherwise.  I certainly have this table (from Coleman) in mind when thinking about the election:

Table 1: 2020 federal and Council of State races in North Carolina

In 2020, no sitting statewide Republicans were defeated. Along those lines, every statewide Democrat who won was an incumbent seeking reelection — and their incumbency wasn’t really enough to guarantee robust margins.

In the case of Gov. Roy Cooper (D-NC), his final 4.5% margin was considerably smaller than what polling suggested. Voters reelected Secretary of State Elaine Marshall to a seventh term, but her 2.3% margin was the closest of her career. Attorney General Josh Stein, a likely contender for governor himself in 2024, had razor-close races in both 2016 and 2020. Finally, though Republicans didn’t seriously challenge state Auditor Beth Wood, she still came within two points of losing to a candidate who faced criminal charges.

So a Cunningham win would have really stood out as a pro-Democratic outlier compared to the other statewide results, given that Trump carried the state, no Republican incumbent statewide officeholders lost, and some Democratic statewide incumbents had very close calls without the kinds of problems that Cunningham had.

There’s also a variety of additional analyses that also point to this same conclusion.  Coleman’s conclusion:

As much as we’d like to treat elections like a science experiment — something that can be replicated but tweaked with different variables — they don’t actually work that way. So it’s hard to know with certainty what might have happened had Cunningham’s affair not become public. There is also some indication that it may have hurt Cunningham on the margins, at least in military-heavy areas and quite possibly elsewhere.

That said, we think there are some good reasons to think Cunningham would have lost anyway. Using Occam’s Razor, his biggest problem was that Biden simply didn’t carry the state. Tillis also did better than Trump in the suburbs, something we saw from several other Senate and House Republican candidates across the country in 2020. And Cunningham doing a little bit better than Biden in the Election Day vote — these are the voters who would’ve had the most time to digest the scandal — also suggests that the scandal may not have been decisive.

As someone who does know a lot about biases of human information processing and biases of media coverage, I think there’s every reason to think that takes that essentially say “sex controversy cost Cunningham the Senate seat” play into both of these.  Again, not that we can say definitively that’s not so, but, not only does the balance of the evidence suggests otherwise, the evidence suggests we’re going to be primed to want to believe the sexier takes despite the evidence.  

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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