The last few days before Election Day 2022 always seem like some kind of political purgatory. Candidates are wrapping up their last appeal. A number of voters have already cast ballots. Any chance of an October surprise has already passed.

So while we bide our time, we asked a few smart election-watchers what exactly they are watching for on Tuesday. Their answers have been lightly edited. 

  • Chris Cooper, professor and director of the Public Policy Institute, Western Carolina University
  • Kerry L. Haynie, professor and chair of political science, Duke University 
  • Whitney Ross Manzo, associate professor of political science at Meredith College
  • “Mac” McCorkle, professor of the practice at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and former Democratic consultant
  • Pat Ryan, founder of Ryan Public Relations, former deputy chief of staff for communications to state Senate Leader Phil Berger
  • Paul Shumaker, president of Capitol Communications, Inc. and longtime consultant to Republican campaigns

The Assembly: What do you think is the sleeper policy issue this year?

Manzo: I think abortion will matter more than people think. As you know, I work at a historically women’s college, and my students are zeroed in on this issue. The first day of class, I always ask what students think is the hottest current political issue, and there is usually a lot of variety.

Chris Cooper

This year, I only heard about abortion/reproductive rights/reproductive justice. Even from students I know are conservative! The news keeps saying this election will be about the economy but don’t sleep on women—especially younger ones—in this cycle.

Cooper: The sleeper policy issue is the notion that there is a sleeper policy issue. I don’t mean to sound overly glib here, but I still think the vast majority of what what moves voters is determined by BAIT: Biden, Abortion, Inflation, Trump.

The Democrats are attempting to make Abortion and Trump the primary issues while the Republicans focus on Biden and Inflation. The issues that are leftover may determine much of how policy will be made, but not how voters will decide.

The Assembly: What N.C. race(s) will serve as your bellwether for the midterms overall? What race(s) will be your sign for how the night is headed?

Kerry Haynie

Haynie: ​The Beasley-Budd race is my bellwether for the 2022 midterms as well as for the 2024 general election. Given historic midterm election patterns and trends, the Republican US Senate candidate should be far ahead of the Democrat in N.C. This is not the case. According to most reputable polls, the race is close and Democrat Cherie Beasley is within striking distance.

Even if Beasley loses, but the margin of her loss is closer than historic patterns, this will be a sign that N.C. is in play for the Democrats in the 2024 presidential election.

Ryan: Wake County’s two highly competitive suburban state senate races. Democratic Sen. Sydney Batch, who is running against Republican Mark Cavaliero in southern Wake County, told Axios, “If I lose, everyone loses,” and I think she’s right. If Republicans win that and the northern Wake County state senate race (Republican E.C. Sykes vs. Democrat Mary Wills Bode), they will have a comfortable supermajority.

Whitney Ross Manzo

If they lose those two seats, a supermajority is still possible, but it’s going to be a much closer call.

Manzo: NC-13 [the U.S. Congressional District in which Democrat Wiley Nickel and Republican Bo Hines are running to fill Ted Budd’s seat] is the bellwether for the state, I think.

It’s a really evenly divided district, and Cook PVI has this district at R+2, but at Old North State Politics we rated it as competitive for the Democrats. I think that shows just how much of a toss-up this district is, which means it’s a good measure for the rest of the state as a whole.

The Assembly: Is there one metric or demographic that you’ll look to once polls close that will decide the night’s direction?

Haynie: I will be following turnout among 18-25 year olds as an indicator of what the outcome of the election is likely to be. Higher-than-usual turnout among this demographic will bode well for Democratic Party candidates, as younger voters are attracted to and motivated by the Democrats’ positions on abortion rights and climate control.

McCorkle: To break the party’s losing streak in Senate races, Cheri Beasley will need very strong turnout from Democratic voters in the state’s major cities. Republicans can probably bet again on high levels of support among white voters in rural and small-town North Carolina. But Ted Budd will also need to keep Republican victory margins above 20 points in most of the 28 “fringe” metropolitan—or “countrypolitan”—counties next to the state’s urban Democratic strongholds.

Growing countrypolitan counties like Johnston in the Raleigh area and Union in the

Paul Shumaker

Charlotte area should be good weathervanes. If Cheri Beasley can lead a trimming of usual Republican margins in such places, Democrats could have an unexpectedly good election night and a new demographic reality could be emerging in North Carolina politics.

Shumaker: Early voting numbers will be posted first and that will be the greatest indicator. If GOP statewide candidates are less than 100,000 votes down in the early voting totals, it will be a red tidal wave for the Republicans after Election Day voting is counted. 

The Assembly: What’s an unexpected but plausible outcome you see for Election Day?

Cooper: The Democrats doing well in sheriff’s races even in the face of Republican gains elsewhere and crime being a concern for many. There is a history of ticket splitting in our state in sheriff’s races, particularly in the mountains. For example, Jackson County has not elected a Republican for sheriff in over 90 years. We could very easily see a host of counties throughout N.C. support Ted Budd for U.S. Senate and Democratic candidates for sheriff.

Pat Ryan

Ryan: Well this is a dangerous question. An unlikely yet plausible outcome would be a 53-seat Republican majority in the U.S. Senate. I actually put my money where my mouth is and placed a wager on PredictIt for just this outcome, at 7-1 odds, two weeks ago. (I hope I didn’t just admit to some sort of crime.)

In any event, a 53-seat majority would likely mean Republicans won in Nevada, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Georgia. FiveThirtyEight puts the chances of a 53+ seat majority at about 20 percent.

“Mac” McCorkle

McCorkle: The biggest possibility of an ideological wild card factor is among registered unaffiliated voters—which at 36 percent now represents a bigger bloc of voters than registered Democrats or Republicans. Most unaffiliated voters will still probably settle for uniformly pulling the lever again for either Democrats or Republicans. 

But as a top team of North Carolina political scientists has recently shown, unaffiliated voters are becoming more restless with and ‘unmoored’ from any strong voting loyalty to either party.

So an outside possibility exists that split-ticket voting among a crucial segment of unaffiliated and other independent-minded voters could lead to a scrambled mix of wins and losses between Democrats and Republicans in competitive races up and down the ballot. Such paradoxical election results could confront both parties with a complicated and interesting new political day.