Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham selected civil litigator and former fighter pilot Tally Parham Casey as his running mate in August | Photo provided

It’s less than nine weeks to election day and former Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham is close enough to be able to beat incumbent GOP Gov. Henry McMaster in November, according to new internal poll results obtained exclusively today by the Charleston City Paper.

“Incumbent Governor McMaster has less than 50% of the vote and leads by just 7 points against Cunningham (42% Cunningham, 49% McMaster, 4% [Libertarian Morgan Bruce] Reeves),” according to a poll by Impact Research for the Cunningham campaign. “Interestingly, this is a similar margin to the one Cunningham initially faced against Katie Arrington in the 2018 congressional polling.”

But the numbers are closer once those who were polled learned more about Cunningham.  When likely voters heard what the pollsters called “balanced positive information about each candidate,” Cunningham narrowed the gap to 3 points,” according to a memo that said the Charleston Democrat was “within striking distance” of McMaster. It added Cunningham led among voters who “know both candidates today.”

The poll, taken Aug. 24 to Aug. 30 among 700 likely 2022 general election voters, had a margin of error of 3.7% at the 95% confidence level. Among Impact Research’s other clients:  President Joe Biden.

“Clear path to victory”
Cunningham strategist Tyler Jones told the City Paper that the parallel to Cunningham’s 2018 upset victory over Arrington is revealing.

“He went on to pull off the biggest upset of the entire [2018] midterm cycle and flip a district that hadn’t voted for a Democrat in 40 years,” Jones said. “Today, Joe begins the race for governor even closer with a clear path to victory.”

But polling hypotheticals are made in something of a political vacuum as the numbers generally don’t reflect real-life negatives, such as a recent attack ad started by the McMaster campaign to satirize Cunningham as a policy fraternity boy.

College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts, however, said the new poll, even though conducted by a Democratic polling firm, showed encouraging signs for Cunningham’s campaign.

“It was a particularly good sign for Cunningham that he is leading among women and independent voters,” Knotts said. According to the poll, Cunningham led women by a 50-41 percentage margin and led among independent voters by a 39-28 percentage margin.   

With the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision and ongoing debates about abortion access in the state legislature, women in particular will be a decisive factor in this race,” Knotts said. “Cunningham will certainly need to maximize his support with those groups to win in this Republican-dominated state.”

Jones agreed on the importance of the differences between Cunningham, who supports a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions, and McMaster on abortion.

“Henry McMaster’s support for a total abortion ban with no exceptions, along with Joe being a uniquely strong candidate with high name ID and crossover appeal, has turned this race on its head,” Jones said. “Our polling shows that if Joe can communicate his message statewide, he can win. Now we know why McMaster went negative in his first TV ad — he’s worried — and he should be.”

According to the poll, women were oversampled (56-44%) as women tend to vote in higher numbers than men. The poll appeared to undersample minority voters with 23% of respondents being Black and 1% being Hispanic. By party, 47% of respondents identified as Republican, 36% as Democrats and 16% as independents.

The next two months of the campaign are expected to be tough for both candidates. The competitive nature of the campaign was on display Tuesday in Charleston when McMaster touted an endorsement by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, but Cunningham’s team fired back that the incumbent was bad for small businesses.

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