Whoa: New poll has Trump by seven in ... North Carolina

Should we succumb to the temptation to freak out about an individual poll, which data nerds tell us we must never do? Or should we calmly remind ourselves that the polling average is usually a more reliable indicator of the state of the race than any one survey is?

C’mon, it’s the final week. We’re entitled to a little freaking out. SurveyUSA has it Trump 51, Clinton 44:

Almost a third of respondents in the WRAL News poll ranked trustworthiness as the most important consideration in voting for president. Positions on issues were rated most important by 40 percent, while experience and character were far behind at 17 and 8 percent, respectively.

Of those ranking trustworthiness most important, 83 percent favor Trump. He also wins among those most concerned about issues, 52 to 43 percent. Clinton was favored by 93 percent of those most concerned with experience, and she doubled up Trump among voters concerned about character, 58 to 26 percent…

Clinton’s sizable lead in North Carolina’s metro areas also has eroded since early October. Her 64 to 27 percent lead among urban voters three weeks ago is down to 53 to 43 percent, and her 9-point lead in the suburbs is now a 2-point deficit. Meanwhile, Trump has extended his lead among rural voters from 18 to 26 points.

A month ago, Clinton led by two points overall in this poll thanks to that mammoth 37-point advantage among urban voters. It seems … unlikely to me that she would have lost 27 points off of that margin in that period, but this poll was conducted after the Comey news dropped on Friday. That’s one reason to pay special attention to these numbers and not just the polling average. There’s been a major news development affecting the race, and this is the only survey of the state to have priced it in so far. (A Remington Research poll was taken over the weekend showing Trump up two but that’s a Republican outfit.) Incidentally, this is the first time either candidate has hit 50 percent in a North Carolina poll; Trump’s previous best was 47 percent. Apart from two Remington polls, he hadn’t led a single survey of NC in more than a month until this one. A seven-point lead seems implausible in light of that, but it’s highly likely that this state is now up for grabs after looking fairly solidly Democratic for most of October. A separate poll from Elon University released today and conducted before the FBI news on Friday had Clinton ahead in North Carolina by less than a point, and showed the same ominous trend for Hillary among women voters that SurveyUSA detected — she’s in decline, losing five points off her lead among women in SurveyUSA’s data and dropping six points among that group in Elon’s. Again, that isn’t (entirely) due to the Comey news as Elon’s poll was conducted before that came out. With the new WRAL numbers factored in, FiveThirtyEight has Hillary’s chances of winning NC down to 51.4 percent from 72 percent just two weeks ago. It’s a true toss-up now.

So what does this mean big-picture? Well, if you read this post over the weekend, you know that North Carolina is the third card in the four-of-a-kind hand Trump is trying to build to get to 270. He’s got a real shot at Florida and Ohio; add North Carolina to that and suddenly he’s in striking distance. The hitch is, that fourth card is the hardest one in the deck to find…

I showed you a map over the weekend in which Trump won Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina and stood at “only” 243 electoral votes; throw Arizona, Nevada, and Iowa on top of that and you can get him to 266. But if Hillary takes Colorado, she still wins the election. The fourth card Trump’s still looking for is a shift in Colorado or some blue-tilting state like Wisconsin or New Hampshire that’s supposed to be in the bag for Clinton. The trendlines over the past 72 hours are encouraging; we may yet get a poll this week showing that a bluish state is now purplish. (Er, in fact, that’s what this SurveyUSA poll of North Carolina is.) But that’s what you’re looking for before the upset bells really start ringing.

For what it’s worth, the early voting returns in North Carolina show that the electorate is not very different from what forecasters expected this year. “Undercover Trump voters” aren’t showing up yet. On the other hand, the SurveyUSA poll has Republicans splitting 90/5 for Trump while Democrats split just 75/23 for Hillary. That’s surprising, as typically Trump has had more trouble this year than Clinton’s had in consolidating his party. It’s true that traditionally Republican nominees have overperformed with Democrats in North Carolina, but Romney won just eight percent of the Democratic vote in NC in 2012. The early voting numbers in various battlegrounds being tracked by NBC also seem to show Democrats on track or ahead of their pace in most states vis-a-vis 2012, but maybe that’s because all the liberal diehards are voting early and the softer Hillary backers are still weighing whether to show up next week. We may end up with a photo finish nationally because Clinton banked a big lead in early voting pre-Comey and then Trump came back big on Election Day post-Comey. Stay tuned.