Dan Bishop and Donald Trump
Credit: Jackson Lanier/Wikimedia Commons

Let’s keep in mind all the usual caveats about polling results, especially when the subject is Donald Trump. For the purpose of discussion, however, we can assume that most polls are at least in the right general ballpark. Consider the following findings from Public Policy Polling’s survey of North Carolinians.

PPP’s newest North Carolina poll finds that Donald Trump continues to be unpopular and that voters in the state are evenly divided on the question of impeaching him.

46% of voters approve of the job Trump is doing to 51% who disapprove of him, in a state that he took by 4 points in 2016. 48% of voters support impeaching Trump, with an equal 48% opposed. At this point disapproval for Trump and support for impeaching Trump have become almost the same thing- only 7% of voters who disapprove of Trump are opposed to impeaching him.

The Tarheel State is important because it’s competitive. Barack Obama carried it in 2008 before losing it narrowly in 2012. Trump’s four point victory there was one of his smallest winning margins. The PPP poll results show some slippage for the president, and this is reflected in the head-to-head matchups.

We tested the 5 leading Democratic candidates in head to heads with Trump and he trails 3 of them, while it’s very close against the other two. Joe Biden has a 5 point advantage at 51-46, Elizabeth Warren has a 3 point advantage at 49-46, and Bernie Sanders is up 50-47. Trump and Kamala Harris tie at 47, and Trump has a slight advantage over Pete Buttigieg at 47-46. It’s notable that regardless of the Democrat he’s tested against, Trump always polls at 46-47% in North Carolina.

These numbers match my intuition, for whatever that is worth. Trump is persistently holding on to a shocking percentage of his supporters, and this provides him with some hope of carrying the states he won in 2016. But he’s still somewhat weaker and should now be considered an underdog in North Carolina and in the national campaign. If this were the only finding in this poll, I wouldn’t consider it worthy of much conversation.

What stands out in the results is the intensity of the opposition to Trump. It’s one thing to prefer a Democratic candidate, and quite another to think the president should be tossed out of office before he has a chance to run for reelection. In North Carolina, 51 percent of the voters disapprove of the job Trump is doing. That’s a depressingly small majority, but it is still a majority. Yet, fully 48 percent want him impeached.

PPP says that only seven percent of Trump disapprovers are opposed to impeachment, which amounts to about three percent of the voters they surveyed. In other words, if you’re not drinking his kool-aid, you’re already convinced that he isn’t fit for office.

The president might take heart that the state is currently split 48%-48% on the question of impeachment, but given his 46 percent job approval number, that’s a startlingly poor number for him.  He’s fortunate that the Senate needs a two-thirds majority to convict, because he’s not looking too likely to win on a majority vote.

If you’re North Carolina senator Thom Tillis and you have to run for reelection next year, it’s hard to figure out what to make of these polling results. Already, a majority of your voters disapprove of the president and nearly half of them support impeachment. But most of these people will be voting against you no matter what you do. The problem is the lack of wiggle room in the middle. If you vote to acquit the president, you’ll probably have no hope of getting about half the votes cast in your state. On the other hand, if you anger the 46 percent of voters who support the president, how many of them will still mark their ballot for you?  You’ll win some compensation in the middle by doing the right thing, but will it be enough?

If Tillis stakes his ground strongly on one side or the other, he could get the worst of both worlds. Yet, straddling the middle could be deadly as well, as it would please almost no one. If he were to strongly support impeachment, he might get enough compensation to make up for angering his base, but he might still fall victim to an overall backlash against his party, especially if Trump is acquitted. If he were to strongly oppose impeachment, he’d be relying on stronger differential turnout for Republicans to put him over the top, but even a popular incumbent president almost never wins an enthusiasm war. The out-party is usually far more motivated. Tillis could seek to anger as few people as possible by saying very little and then casting a vote to convict with a little solemn speech. But this would limit the credit he’d get without preventing disillusionment from his base.

If I were advising him, I’d tell him to do the right thing and let the cards fall where they may. He doesn’t want to defend a person like Trump and then lose anyway. But if I was going to advise him on how to win, I’d probably tell him that his best hope is to be a visible proponent of conviction.

This is not an obvious choice. A lot would depend on whether or not he was actually convicted.

If Trump were thrown out of office, the Republicans would have a different candidate and that might help Tillis all by itself. The main focus would still be on the presidential race, and it’s possible that the state could revert to its slight preference for the GOP. This would at least remove the headwinds, as he wouldn’t have to outperform the top of the ticket.

If, on the other hand, Trump were acquitted despite Tillis’s strong support for conviction, he’d be on a more equal footing with his Democratic opponent as they faced an electorate where conviction was the likely majority sentiment.

If Tillis opts to convict, he should not be shy about it because he’s going to need to appeal to the majority sentiment to make up for the backlash he faces from the right.

If he opts to acquit, he should probably start looking for a new job. But, if he opts for acquittal, he’s going to need every last Trump-supporting vote and he’s going to need Trump to carry the state. That means he should back Trump to the hilt.

A final consideration for Tillis is the prospect of a primary challenge. The filing deadline for the March 3, 2020 primary is December 20, 2019. It appears that he already has two challengers. Neither of them are competitive in fundraising, and the stronger of the two, Garland Tucker, only had $108,488.29 cash on hand at the end of June. Tillis had over $4 million.  While the threat of a primary is something he has to consider, he doesn’t look overly imperiled at the moment. That could certainly change between now and March. Surely, the president could help Tucker rapidly fill his coffers. If the vote comes after December 20, at least Tillis won’t have to worry about any additional challengers.

He, like many of his Republican colleagues, doesn’t have good political options, so he should probably follow his conscience. There simply isn’t an obvious winning position to take, so he should take the one that will be easiest to live with when he’s on his deathbed.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com