RALEIGH — Will Democrats deliver a punishing blow to Republicans in this year midterm elections in North Carolina or will the much-vaunted “blue wave” prove to be more of a ripple?
No one yet knows the answer. But two new polls of North Carolina voters offer insights about these alternative scenarios.
If the latest Harper Polling survey, commissioned by the conservative Civitas Institute, proves to be an accurate forecast of voter sentiment by Election Day, North Carolina Democrats would likely break one or both Republican supermajorities in the General Assembly — and perhaps even win control of a chamber — while gaining two to three North Carolina seats in the U.S. House, adding another Democratic justice to the state Supreme Court, and winning a number of other judicial and local races around the state.
The Harper/Civitas poll of 500 likely voters, taken Sept. 4 through Sept. 7, asked “generic ballot” questions for Congress and state legislature. The results gave Democrats a seven-point advantage statewide, 45 percent to 38 percent, in congressional races and a six-point edge (42 percent to 36 percent) in legislative ones.
On the other hand, if the latest poll from High Point University turns out to be predictive of voter preferences, there will be a lot of disappointed Democrats in North Carolina.
Taken Sept. 7 through Sept. 13, the High Point survey sampled 827 adults in North Carolina, including 734 who identified themselves as registered voters and 511 who said they were “almost certain to vote.” On generic-ballot questions for Congress and legislature, the divide in partisan preference among the relevant subgroups — registered voters and most-likely voters — was either a tie or a statistically insignificant single-point Democratic edge, depending on the electoral contest.
Because these are statewide figures, you can’t just assume that district-by-district results would precisely match them. The congressional and legislative maps were drawn by Republicans and are friendly to their electoral prospects. But that’s not the only reason. Right- and left-leaning voters aren’t equally distributed. Democrats are disproportionately found in urban counties as well as swaths of majority-minority communities in rural counties in Northeastern and Southeastern North Carolina.
Even if the statewide vote for, say, General Assembly ends up closely divided, Democrats may well pick up seats in places such as Wake and Mecklenburg counties. However, to truly threaten solid GOP control of the legislature, Democrats would have to win seats in less-urban districts. Their generic-ballot edge in the Civitas poll is consistent with such a scenario. The High Point poll results are not.
If the Civitas survey (somewhat ironically) defines upper bound of Democratic hopes and the High Point survey defines something like the lower bound, what explains the differences? Because African-American voters are the most loyal Democratic constituency, analysts often consider their share of the sample as a telling sign.
That share was 19 percent for the Civitas “likely voter” model, 20 percent for High Point’s “all voters” model, and 18 percent for High Point’s “most-likely voters” model. These spreads probably weren’t the determining factor. Neither was age — the Civitas sample skewed both older and more Democratic-leaning at the same time.
Although you may find this an unsatisfying answer, I think the best way to interpret these new North Carolina polls is that they reflect the tremendous uncertainty built into the 2018 midterms. Antipathy to Trump is certainly a motivating factor for the Democratic base to turn out, as well as a potentially dampener among some GOP-leaning voters, particularly suburban women.
But Republicans have reasons to turn out, as well — at the national level to defend the president and GOP policy gains, and at the state level to maintain relevance in a state capital that now features a Democratic governor and Democratic-majority high court.
The two polls did converge in one area: They found strong public support for constitutional amendments that would cap the state’s income tax rate at 7 percent and require a photo ID to vote. Both will likely pass even if the electoral wave is deep blue.
John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.