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GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – Voters in North Carolina may say that economic issues concern them the most, but most say the debate about abortion rights is more likely to inspire them to cast a ballot.

About 41% of respondents in a WGHP/Emerson College/The Hill Poll of likely voters in North Carolina cited the economy/inflation as the most decisive factor on Nov. 8, and 12% said that abortion was more important (following the threat to democracy, 14%, and just ahead of health care, 11%).

But when you ask voters about the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade’s protection of abortion rights this past June, then the story is different: A majority (59%) say they are much more likely (46%) or somewhat more likely (12%) to vote because of that decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health.

About 35% say that ruling makes no difference, and fewer than 1 in 5 (about 17%) say it makes them at least somewhat less likely to vote at all.

That motivation could be a strong factor in deciding who will replace retiring Republican Richard Burr in the U.S. Senate. Democrat Cheri Beasley, the former NC Supreme Court chief justice, and Rep. Ted Budd (R-Advance), currently representing the 13th Congressional District, have been neck-and-neck in recent polls. Libertarian Shannon Bray and Green Party candidate Matthew Hoh also are in the race.

Republican Ted Budd and Democrat Cheri Beasley (WGHP file photo
Republican Ted Budd and Democrat Cheri Beasley (WGHP file photo)

“Of the 46% of voters who say they are much more likely to vote because of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, 60% support Beasley and 29% Budd,” said Spencer Kimball, executive director of Emerson College Polling. “However, voters who say the overturning of Roe makes no difference on their vote break for Budd over Beasley, 51% to 25%.

“On the issue of the economy, the Republicans do well. They win it nearly two-to-one. But, on the issue of abortion access, the Democrats are winning that, 77-3.”

Emerson Polling’s survey included 1,000 likely voters, contacted by telephone and internet on Sept. 15-16. Data were weighted for various demographic information, and the poll’s “Credibility Interval,” which is like a margin of error, is plus or minus three percentage points.

Abortion as an issue

The poll showed that a plurality of voters (39%) think the North Carolina General Assembly should make it easier to access abortion, and 32% think legislators should make it more difficult. Just less than 1 in 3 (29%) said they shouldn’t do anything.

North Carolina’s current abortion law, recently reinstated following SCOTUS’ ruling, limits abortions to up to 20 weeks and 6 days of pregnancy. Some lawmakers have indicated they may review that when Republicans have more control in North Carolina after the term of Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, ends in 2024.

“Certainly, the conversation about abortion access has changed over the last couple of months previous to where it’s been for nearly 50 years,” Kimball said. “A lot of people considered it to be what they would call settled law.”

Kimball said that since Emerson, which polls in dozens of elections across numerous states, started asking about abortion access a couple of months ago, the issue has grown significantly in importance.

“It was 3 to 4%,” he said. “As I mentioned in this poll it’s up to 11%. And in some states, we see it up as high as 19%. So, there’s still room for this issue to grow in importance with voters. … And if it does so, it probably benefits the Democrats.”

Other issues

That doesn’t take away from the economy as a resonating issue: “We do see the economy holding pretty steady at 40% as the most important issue. The concern for the Democrats as they focus on abortion access, does it cannibalize another issue like health care?” Kimball said.

Respondents did not limit their top issues to the economy, democracy, abortion or health care, but no other issue came close to those four in their importance to voters.

Education, immigration, housing, crime and COVID-19 all polled at 4.2% or less. The category “something else” was chosen by 8.1%.

“Sixty-nine percent of voters who say the economy is their most important issue plan to vote for Budd,” Kimball said. “Seventy-seven percent of those who say abortion is their top issue support Beasley.

“Those who find threats to democracy to be the most important issue are more split: 53% support Beasley and 42% support Budd.”

Medicaid, student loan forgiveness

Two topics not so much in the conversation about moving the election needle but important to state voters are President Joe Biden’s recent forgiveness of $10,000 in federal loan debt for thousands of college graduates and the potential expansion of access to Medicaid in North Carolina.

Respondents strongly support expanding Medicaid (57%) to low-income residents, and fewer than 1 in 5 (18%) are against it. The rest have no opinion.

North Carolina is one of 12 states that have not offered expansion since the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. State Republicans in the Senate recently have said they believe the program is stable now and ready to be accepted.

“A third of the voters are sitting on the sidelines. But, of those who put their minds in, nearly 3-1 would like to see Medicaid expanded,” Kimball said.

“Just because everybody is in favor of something doesn’t necessarily mean the policy is going to happen. And, we’ll obviously have to wait to see the details. And that’s when some people say, ‘Oh, that sounds great.’ Then you hear the details, and it’s not as great as it sounded.

“As far as public policy and public support, at this point, it’s overwhelming in support of expansion.”

But on the student loan debt forgiveness for individuals earning $125,000, the responses are much more divided. About 1 in 3 says the $10,000 was too much (32%), but about 1 in 5 says it wasn’t enough (20%). More than 1 in 4 say it was just about right (26%). And there are the 23% who said it shouldn’t even have happened.

The issue could motivate younger voters, Kimball said.

“The group that was… falling off the wagon for the Democrats were the 18-to-34-year-olds,” he said. “What we’ve noticed over the summer was this group was really disenfranchised from participation.

 “What we see here is that this group has come back into the fold and are slightly more motivated to vote in the election. So, from that standpoint strategically it seems to have motivated a group of voters that were not that motivated prior to that policy change.”

The methodology

Emerson College Polling’s North Carolina poll was conducted Sept. 15-16. The sample consisted of somewhat and very likely voters, with a Credibility Interval (similar to a poll’s margin of error) of plus or minus three percentage points. The data sets were weighted by gender, age, education, region, party registration and race/ethnicity based on 2022 turnout modeling. It is important to remember that subsets based on gender, age, education and race/ethnicity could have higher margins of error because the sample size is reduced. Data were collected using a cellphone sample using SMS-to-web, an Interactive Voice Response system of landlines and an online panel.

What is Emerson Polling?

The Polling Center at Emerson College, which is located in Boston, is a non-partisan organization dedicated to “accurately reflect populations through public opinion research.” Established 25 years ago in a classroom, Emerson College Polling in 2012 was moved into a polling center. Emerson College Polling conducts and publishes research related to voting trends, polling methodology and public policy.

Michael Hyland of WNCN contributed to this report.