Democrats will have a better chance at winning the North Carolina Governor's race now than they did yesterday no matter who their candidate is this fall. But one potential candidate really rises to the top: Erskine Bowles.
We've tested a number of Democratic alternatives to Bev Perdue over the last year and Bowles was the only one who didn't trail McCrory. In October we found the two tied at 42%. Here are some of the key findings from that poll:
-Bowles trailed McCrory by only 5 points with independents, 43-38. To put those numbers in perspective exit polling showed McCrory defeating Perdue by 22 points among independents in 2008...and she won anyway. Bowles has strong potential to improve on her performance with that group.
-Bowles trailed McCrory by only 14 points with white voters, 50-36. Perdue lost those voters by 25 points in 2008, 61-36. The only reason Bowles wasn't leading McCrory in our October poll is that he was at just 65% with African Americans. If he actually ended up being the Democratic nominee he'd likely get the requisite 90%+ of the black vote that most Democrats get and it would make him a favorite against McCrory.
Slippage with white voters and independents, along with low turnout from black and young voters, were what doomed Democrats in 2010. Bowles is the candidate who can improve on the former two problems, and Barack Obama's presence on the ticket can resolve the latter two ones.
Folks may point to Bowles' losses in 2002 and 2004 Senate runs as evidence he's not a good candidate. But 2002 was a horrible year for the Democratic Party both nationally and in North Carolina and Bowles was running against Elizabeth Dole, who at the time was a rock star candidate.
In 2004 Bowles was burdened by a Kerry/Edwards ticket that was very weak in North Carolina and lost the state by 12 points. What people might forget is that Bowles lost by only 5 points, outrunning the Presidential ticket by 7. The Presidential landscape in North Carolina has changed dramatically since 2004 and with the state looking like a dead heat if Bowles could outrun Obama by just 2-3 points he'd probably find himself in the Governor's Mansion.
Democrats don't need Erskine Bowles to run to have a chance this fall. Pat McCrory's embrace of an unpopular Legislature that has made deep cuts to education will ensure that any candidate has a fighting shot. But Bowles would be the strongest candidate.