RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) – Republican Ted Budd’s push toward the U.S. Senate has reached two key levels he had not achieved: A new poll shows that more than half of voters now choose him to replace retiring Richard Burr, and his lead over Democrat Cheri Beasley is outside the margin of error.

Those were the findings in the latest Emerson College Polling/The Hill/WGHP Poll, which shows that 50.3% of very likely voters in this year’s election say they will or have voted for Budd. Beasley earned 45.2%, and the 5-percentage-point spread was double what it was just a month ago.

Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) and Democratic challenger Cheri Beasley shake hands after their televised debate in October. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP, Pool)

Budd, the gun-shop owner from Advance who has represented the 13th Congressional District since 2016, has led Beasley in head-to-head matchups since pre-primary polling in May.

But this poll shows is that more previously undecided voters are making up their minds in his favor. There now are only 2.1% who haven’t made their choice, 9.2 percentage points fewer than just a month ago, and a lot of that swing has been among women.

“Since last month, Budd has maintained his 16-point lead among male voters, whereas Beasley’s nine-point lead among women voters has shrunk to a four-point lead,” said Spencer Kimball, director of Emerson College Polling.

Both primary candidates have seen their share of the electorate grow, with Beasley, former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, gaining 2 percentage points since September and 3.8 since May. Budd has grown only 2 points since he led Beasley by about 7 points in May, but he has surged 4.6 points since WGHP’s poll in September.

Libertarian Shannon Bray has garnered about 1.4% of the vote, which is down by .4 since September, and Green Party candidate Matthew Hoh has been stable with 0.6% of the voters.

“The female independent vote has swung slightly away from Cheri Beasley,” Kimball said in a follow-up interview. “That vote was keeping her in the race, and now it’s shifted slightly to Ted Budd.”

About 49.8% of female voters say they support Beasley, and 55.4% of men support Budd. Among those women who remain undecided, 53.8% say they favor Budd, and only 15.4% say they back Beasley.

Voting underway

Nearly 3 in 10 surveyed said they already had voted among the more than 1.3 million who have submitted ballots across North Carolina as of Wednesday morning, either by mail or by early in-person voting, which ends at 3 p.m. Saturday. Election Day is Nov. 8.

In addition to the Senate race, the ballot includes 14 seats in Congress, all seats in the NC General Assembly, two seats on the NC Supreme Court, four seats on the Court of Appeals and various other local races.

Emerson College conducted this poll on Oct. 27-29 among very likely voters (71%). The poll has a credibility interval – similar to a poll’s margin of error – of plus or minus 3 percentage points. The data were collected using cell phones via SMS-to-web, an interactive voice response system of landlines and an online panel.

Both Beasley and Budd have raised millions of dollars – with Beasley having a wide lead in donations – and super PACs have invested millions more in aggressive television campaigns attacking each candidate.

Budd’s surge

Democrat Cheri Beasley (left) and Republican Ted Budd vie for the U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina.

Most polls have had the race much closer, and when the Marist Poll last week reported a dead heat at 44% among registered voters (and Budd ahead by 4 points among certain voters), officials said they were surprised that neither candidate had surpassed 50%. But now that has happened.

“It looks like in the last three or four weeks the Republicans were able to take back some of that momentum,” Kimball said. “And we’ll see in this next week or so if the Democrats are able to stabilize their base and get out their vote.”

Budd is viewed favorably by 53% of voters, and 40% view him as unfavorable. Beasley is viewed favorably by 46%, with 48% unfavorable.

The key issues

Budd’s chief message has been consistent with that of many Republicans running across the nation: Inflation and the economy form the key issue, and Beasley would continue the policies of President Joe Biden, who is not very popular in North Carolina.

Beasley has countered by attacking Budd’s record during three terms in Congress, where he has voted against bills to codify abortion and protect reproductive rights, to lower prescription drug prices and against bipartisan bills for gun laws and infrastructure that are now law.

Both candidates hammered those points during their lone debate in early October, but respondents in the WGHP poll showed that Budd’s message was resonating.

They gave Biden a 56% disapproval rating, and only 37% like the job he is doing, and more than 4 in 10 say the economy – which includes inflation, jobs and taxes – is the dominant issue. About 1 in 3 among those who already have voted listed the economy as their key issue.

“President Biden has a 37 percent approval rating in the state,” Kimball said. “And so, generally speaking, that might be hurting Cheri Beasley in the Senate race because he won’t have the coattails that he did when he was running for president and his approval was higher in North Carolina at that time.”

Add to that that more respondents said they trust the Republican Party more to handle inflation than Democrats (40% to 39%). Among unaffiliated voters, that edge is even wider (48% to 31%).

The Trump factor

Rep. Ted Budd shakes hands with former President Donald Trump at a Save America Rally at the Aero Center Wilmington on Sept. 23. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

There also is the factor of former President Donald Trump, who carried North Carolina in both 2016 and 2020 despite losing the popular vote nationally. He endorsed Budd from a large field of Republicans during the primary and campaigned with him earlier in the fall.

Budd has tried at times to distance himself from Trump’s unfounded claims that the election was stolen from him, but Budd signed in opposition to certifying the 2020 presidential election on Jan. 6, 2020. That’s when thousands of Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol in violent protest, leaving seven dead, hundreds injured and leading to more than 925 being charged and prosecuted for their actions, about 24 North Carolinians among them.

Among those surveyed by Emerson Polling, 48.4% voted for Trump in 2020 and 47.2% for Biden. There are 10% of Biden’s voters who chose Budd, and 4.3% of Trump's voters chose Beasley.

And in a hypothetical 2024 presidential election between President Biden and former President Trump, 51% said they would vote for Trump and 40% for Biden. Seven percent would vote for someone else.

Kimball says that Democrats are “shifting, to try to get that older vote out as well, looking at Social Security. And that’s something that’s being talked [about] around the country by Democratic candidates.

“And we’ll have to see if that’s enough to motivate that older vote, who generally votes at a higher propensity than those younger voters, particularly in a primary election.”