We'll be conducting our next poll on the North Carolina Senate race this weekend and it's safe to say this one is more important than all of the previous ones combined.
In the three 2008 polls we did before Kay Hagan started running television ads she was at 18-19% while her main challenger Jim Neal was at 9-11%. Once Hagan got on the air her support went to 28%, then 35%, then 36%, then 41% over the course of the final four polls. Neal, who did not have the resources to run television, stagnated at 7%, then 8%, 8% again, and finished at 11%. That's how it went from being a relatively competitive 9 point race to a total blowout.
Based on that trajectory in the 2008 contest you would expect Cal Cunningham to be leading this penultimate poll after having the airwaves to himself for a week and a half. But he doesn't have as much money as Hagan did, and his ad buys so far haven't been particularly large. At the same time there is not nearly as much political ad clutter as there was in 2008 when the state had competitive primaries on both sides for Governor in addition to the Obama/Clinton contest so it's possible the volume of ads this time around doesn't have to be as large to make the same impact.
One thing that does seem more clear after yesterday's fundraising numbers came out is that this is a two person race. Kenneth Lewis was already lagging Marshall and Cunningham in the polling and he's even further behind in the money race- you don't usually catch up in the polls if you're way behind on the cash. Unless Lewis has some amazing, invisible grassroots operation he's going to be settling for the bronze.
If Cunningham has pulled ahead of Marshall there's going to be some temptation to say it's over between the poll lead and the money lead. But that would be premature. In the Treasurer's contest two years ago Janet Cowell led pretty much all of our polling. Then David Young was first on the air and took over the lead on our second to last poll. But after she started running her ads Cowell took it right back on the final poll before winning the race. So there is some precedent for Marshall to come back and win even if she has slipped behind this weekend.
I really have no idea who's going to win this race. It's going to be very interesting to see how it plays out.