With a half-million votes already cast, President Trump and Senator Thom Tillis trail their Democratic challengers in North Carolina, according to a new poll from The New York Times and Siena College, signaling potential trouble for Republicans in a state critical to both the presidential race and the battle for control of the Senate.

The New York Times /
Siena College poll

Joe Biden leads Donald Trump in North Carolina, a state Mr. Trump won in 2016.

2016 result
NYT/Siena
Oct. 2020
+4 Trump 50-46
+4 Biden 46-42

Based on a New York Times/Siena College poll of 627 likely voters in North Carolina from Oct. 9 to Oct.13.

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. leads Mr. Trump among likely voters, 46 percent to 42 percent, while Mr. Tillis is behind Cal Cunningham, his Democratic challenger who is embroiled in a scandal over salacious text messages, 41 percent to 37 percent.

Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, leads his Republican challenger, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, by a larger margin: 51 percent to 37 percent.

Mr. Cunningham’s lead has held steady since early September, when the Times/Siena poll found the Democrat with a five-point advantage over Mr. Tillis. Fifteen percent of likely voters surveyed said they remained undecided in the Senate race — nearly twice as many as those who said they were undecided in the presidential contest in North Carolina.

The survey has a margin of sampling error of 4.5 percentage points.

The poll was conducted within the last few days, well after Mr. Cunningham offered an awkward public apology for the romantic (but PG-rated) texts he sent this summer to a woman who is not his wife. It found that Mr. Cunningham, a former state senator and an Iraq war veteran, retains a 15-point advantage among women.

The New York Times /
Siena College poll

A Democratic challenger leads an incumbent Republican in North Carolina for a seat that could determine which party controls the Senate.

Dem. Rep. Margin
Cal Cunningham

Thom Tillis

15% undecided

Based on a New York Times/Siena College poll of 627 likely voters in North Carolina from Oct. 9 to Oct. 13.

North Carolina has long been crucial to both parties’ hopes of winning a Senate majority. Democrats are counting on Mr. Cunningham to be one of at least four challengers the party needs to win Republican-held seats to take control of the chamber, while Republicans seeking to hold on to their majority will have a far easier time doing so if Mr. Tillis is re-elected.

Mr. Cunningham has seen his own personal approval rating sink since his texting scandal emerged. Last month 46 percent of likely voters polled in North Carolina had a favorable view of Mr. Cunningham, compared to 29 percent who saw him unfavorably. Now 40 percent of likely voters have a favorable view and 41 percent see him unfavorably.

Vasiliki Kalkani, 52, of Asheville, N.C., voted for Jill Stein of the Green Party for president in 2016 but now backs Mr. Biden because she said it is “critical” to remove Mr. Trump from office. Ms. Kalkani, a small-business owner, said she did not care about Mr. Cunningham’s text messages.

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“Who doesn’t have sex scandals?” she said. “Do they take care of the country?”

In 2016, Mr. Trump carried North Carolina by 3.7 percentage points over Hillary Clinton, while Senator Richard Burr, a Republican, won re-election by nearly six points.

Mr. Biden’s standing in North Carolina is consistent with the leads he has built in other battleground states. The former vice president has significant advantages among women and suburbanites, and is far more trusted to deal with the public health crisis caused by the coronavirus.

On the question of which candidate would better handle the virus, Times/Siena College polls last week found Mr. Biden had a 10-point advantage among likely voters in Nevada, and a seven-point lead in Ohio.

The North Carolina poll, like those conducted recently in other states, showed that a majority of likely voters do not trust Mr. Trump to be honest about his own experience with the virus, the polling shows.

Judith Diss, 80, of Locust, N.C., said Mr. Trump had been the victim of unfair media coverage and said she appreciated that he had been straightforward about his distaste for wearing masks.

“I’m not going to put my mask on every time I step outside my apartment door and wander around these streets of America where I live, which are primarily owned by God anyway,” said Ms. Diss, a registered Democrat who is supporting Mr. Trump’s re-election and stressed that she believes masks are important in some situations.

In the Senate race, Mr. Tillis faces a somewhat unique challenge: North Carolina is not a state in which voters have valued seniority in the Senate. Other than Mr. Burr, a three-term Republican who holds the state’s other seat in the chamber, no North Carolina senator has been re-elected since Jesse Helms won his final term in 1996.

Mr. Tillis is trailing Mr. Cunningham even though about half of the voters surveyed said they would prefer that the Senate vote on the Supreme Court confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett before Election Day. Mr. Tillis supports that position, but a majority of Americans oppose it, according to a range of polls.

But the polling shows that Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Tillis and Mr. Trump all suffer from a broad lack of trust, which hampers both their political standing and their ability to launch attacks against their opponents.

Asked if they trusted the Trump administration to provide accurate updates about the president’s health after his positive coronavirus test, 41 percent of voters surveyed said they did and 52 percent said they did not. Even nine percent of Mr. Trump’s supporters in the state said they did not trust his administration to state true facts about his health.

The New York Times /
Siena College poll

Do you think the Senate candidates are honest and trustworthy?

Cunningham
24% Don’t know

Based on a New York Times/Siena College poll of 627 likely voters in North Carolina from Oct. 9 to Oct. 13.

Just 27 percent of those polled said Mr. Cunningham is “honest and trustworthy,” compared with 48 percent who said he is not. Mr. Tillis is trusted by 30 percent of likely voters, while 48 percent do not trust him. Both men face skepticism from large constituencies of their own parties: 20 percent of Democrats don’t trust Mr. Cunningham, while 23 percent of Republicans said the same about Mr. Tillis.

“Cal Cunningham seems as clean as dishes out of the dishwater, except for the sexual thing,” said Martin Reavis, a 52-year-old construction worker from Harmony, N.C. Mr. Reavis voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, but plans to back both Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Biden. “Infidelity is bad, but it’s not going to change my mind,” he said.

The Times/Siena poll comes a day before what would have been the second presidential debate between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump. But after Mr. Trump tested positive for the coronavirus, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that the debate would be held virtually, and then canceled it after Mr. Trump said he would not participate unless both candidates appeared in person.

Instead, the two candidates will conduct televised town hall events at the same time on Thursday night.

The final debate is scheduled for Oct. 22.

Here are the crosstabs for the poll.

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