Democrats face headwinds on top issues
North Carolina remains a political battleground. Although Republicans have won most recent statewide contests and retained majorities in legislative seats and county commissions, they usually lose gubernatorial races. Moreover, many of the GOP’s statewide wins were by small margins.
Based on electoral outcomes, I think a fair way to describe us is a competitive state with a reddish lean. Other data point in a similar direction. North Carolinians are more likely than the average state electorate to describe themselves as politically conservative, for example, but aren’t nearly as likely as Mississippians or Alabamians to do so.
Republicans are hoping to build on their track record of success in 2024. Democrats are hoping for a reversal of fortunes. Although there are many unknown variables right now — and as 2022 results in other states demonstrated, the GOP is perfectly capable of blowing winnable races by nominating weak candidates — I think Democrats are in a tough spot.
No, it isn’t just because of unfair redistricting. Nor is it a lack of resources. North Carolina Democrats have raised and spent lots of money on races they still ended up losing. What I mean is that, on many of the public’s top concerns, Democrats lack credibility with the swing voters they need to prevail.
Consider a recent survey from High Point University. Its polling team presented 793 registered North Carolina voters with a list of 20 issues that are relevant to state government. Respondents were asked to classify each issue as “very important, somewhat important, not very important,” or “not at all important” for state policymakers in Raleigh to address.
Here were the 10 top issues, ranked in descending order according to how many North Carolina voters attached the “very important” label to them: school safety, inflation, education, health care, law enforcement, supporting veterans, opioids, job creation, voting integrity, and taxes.
Next, the poll asked the respondents whether they thought Democrats or Republicans would “do a better job dealing” with each issue. Lots of voters — approaching half in some cases — declined to pick a side. As for those who did, respondents split their party preferences fairly evenly on seven issues, including education and voting integrity.
Still, there were some electorally important patterns. Of the 13 issues where the partisan preference was statistically significant, Democrats enjoyed the advantage on four. The margin of Democratic preference was +17 percentage points on climate change, +13 on civil rights, +7 on health care, and +6 on abortion. On nine issues, Republicans were favored: +13 on inflation and veterans, +10 on opioids, +9 on law enforcement and job creation, +8 on taxes, +6 on agriculture, and +5 on immigration and guns.
Now compare the two lists. Among the 10 issues North Carolinians are most worried about, Republicans have an edge on six. The two parties are essentially tied on three. Democrats have the advantage on just one, health care.
Do issues matter? Some political pros and cynics — perhaps that’s redundant — say no. I disagree. Although the personalities and leadership qualities of candidates are clearly important, some voters really do make up their minds on the basis of whom they trust to address the problems they care about the most.
That’s why you’ll still find a significant share of Democratic-leaning voters who are moderate or even conservative on such matters as abortion or LGBT rights. They may agree with their Republican neighbors on social issues but place a higher priority on, say, access to health care and trust Democrats more to provide it. Similarly, you’ll find clumps of voters who support Republicans despite the party’s views on social issues — because they like the GOP’s position on public safety or taxes — as well as voters who support Republicans because of the party’s views on social issues.
Right now, the problem for Democrats is that their ideological brand is misaligned. They crush Republicans among North Carolinians whose top priority is climate change, for instance. But that slice of the electorate is extremely narrow.
John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history.