CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) - Incumbent South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has a small lead over challenger and state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, according to new polling data released Tuesday and conducted on behalf of ABC News 4 and The Post and Courier.
According to the Voter Survey Service poll, Haley has a 13-point lead, 53-40, over Sheheen with 7 percent undecided in the race when the two top contenders are compared head-to-head.
"She's doing pretty well. I mean, she's an incumbent. She's in a Republican state. She has a fundraising advantage and the economy is doing a little bit better than it has been doing," said College of Charleston Political Science department chair Gibbs Knotts. "So I expect her to be in the lead, and it's certainly her race to lose."
However, when Independent Party candidate Tom Ervin and Libertarian Party candidate Steve French are added into the data, Haley's lead drops to 4 points, 46-42, over Sheheen.
With a margin of error of 3.8 percent, the two top contenders are in a statistical dead heat at this point.
Ervin and French garnered 3 and 2 percent of the hypothetical vote, and the undecided numbers dropped by a percentage point.
"It's going to be for either one of these two individuals to win in November, but they could certainly have an effect on the outcome in November," Knotts said.
Haley still leads Sheheen among Republicans by a 77-9 margin when the third party candidates Ervin and French are added to the polling data, which is a drop from the 86-7 lead she held when it was just Haley and Sheheen head-to-head.
"She's in the lead so she's comfortable as far as that goes," said Post and Courier political reporter Robert Behre. "But she's not been able to get over the 50 percent mark that would indicate a very likely re-election."
The race for the independent vote remains a toss-up in either comparison, with Sheheen leading by a point with four candidates in the race and Haley leading by four points with just two candidates.
While the race looks to be tight, Haley still appears to have more energy from her base this summer. Even in the four-way race, Haley leads Sheheen 49-41 among respondents who say they have an "excellent" chance of voting. That margin holds true in the head-to-head race, the poll shows.
Respondents over the age of 55 favored Haley over Sheheen. Eighty percent of respondents aged 55 to 64 said they had an "excellent" chance of voting in November.
That percentage rose to 90 percent for respondents over 65.
According to the poll, Republicans hold a solid lead over Democrats in on their interest in the upcoming gubernatorial election. Eighty-four percent of Republicans classified themselves as having an "excellent" chance of voting in November compared to 70 percent of Democrats.
This could mean Sheheen and the Democrats will have to drive turnout higher than historical averages suggest is likely to stay close on Election Night.
Regionally, Haley and Sheheen split the state. Haley has the most support in the Upstate with a 52-38 lead over Sheheen. The state senator however performs best in the Midlands with a 48-40 lead over the governor.
The two candidates are in a statistical tie in the Lowcountry, with Haley leading Sheheen by 2 points.
At this point in the lead-in to November, Haley appears to be performing as well as she did in 2010 in Republican areas, but Sheheen looks to be trailing behind his 2010 support in the Midlands.
However, Haley's job approval sits at 48 percent favorable and 41 percent unfavorable. Analysts from Susquehanna Polling and Research, the firm that conducted the poll, say there is a trend among sitting governors to get an Election Day percentage equal to their polling numbers.
"Her disapproval rating was art 41 percent, so she's still somewhat of a divisive figure out there," Behre said.
Racially, 59 percent of whites said they backed Haley while only 28 percent of whites supported Sheheen. However, Sheheen dominates the non-white vote with an 81-9 lead over the governor.
Men favor Haley over Sheheen by a 9-point difference, but women are split on the two top candidates at 44 percent each.
"It's going to be really, really difficult for a Democrat to win statewide," Knotts said. "Not impossible, but certainly very difficult."
When faced with issues driving respondents' concern in the election year, respondents are split among health care, job creation, and education with nearly equal numbers selecting those three options.
However, when breaking down the options along party lines, registered Republicans favored illegal immigration, registered Independents favored education, and registered Democrats stayed split among job creation, health care, and education.
"[Health care] has not been a big issue in the race so far, but these poll numbers showing that health care is on people's minds makes you wonder whether that will loom larger as this race goes on," Behre said.
Primary issue concerns shift as registered voters get older, the poll shows.
The youngest respondents, ages 18-44, are primarily concerned with education. That shifts to job creation for registered voters ages 45 to 54, and then to health care and illegal immigration for those aged 55 to 64. Registered voters over the age of 65 say health care is their primary issue for the election.
White voters said their primary concerns were illegal immigration and education while non-white voters said their focus was on job creation, health care, and education, a concern that is echoed each month in Bureau of Labor Statistics research that shows minority workers lag behind whites in employment rates and education.
According to the most recent national BLS data, the unemployment rate for blacks was nearly double that of whites. Likewise, unemployment for people with only a high school diploma was 9.1 percent while the rate was only 3.3 percent for those with at least a college degree.
According to the ABC News 4/Post and Courier poll, male and female registered voters say job creation and education are their primary issues of concern. Women also include health care as a statistical equal.
By region, voters in the Midlands and the Upstate say job creation and education are most important to them, while voters in the Lowcountry identify with health care.
The poll was commissioned by ABC News 4 and the Post and Courier along with WYFF in Greenville, and WACHFox in Columbia. It was conducted by Voter Survey Service, a division of Susquehanna Polling and Research, from July 7-13 with 1,000 registered voters and July 16-20 with an additional 650 registered voters.
In order to be eligible to complete the survey respondents had to first indicate their likelihood of voting in the upcoming general election for Governor and U.S. Senate on Tuesday, Nov. 4. The full results include results from an automated system and live agent interviews to gather information from younger voters or people using only cellphones.
Each day this week, the Post and Courier and ABC News 4 will release more data from the Voter Survey Service poll, including information on U.S. Senate races, the direction of the state, and how big issues in other states are considered in South Carolina. ABC News 4 will release more information every night at 6 p.m. with follow-up coverage in the Post and Courier each morning.
Read more from the Post and Courier here.