GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – As the Republican front-runner for governor of North Carolina runs through conspiracy-level controversy, the two men pursuing him are focusing on what they believe those controversies say about his character while also ensuring the public knows they are just as conservative on many key issues.
Then there is the so-far-lone Democratic candidate, who draws the ire of all three because he is, well, a Democrat. His opponents deride him as something they loosely call “woke” and criticize him for how he handles enforcement of state laws written largely by Republicans. Two Libertarians, meanwhile, agree on some points with candidates from each of the main parties and try to establish a foothold with the public on others.
This is where we are as summer settles in, with six people who have announced they are running in 2024 to succeed term-limited Democrat Roy Cooper, all of whom are wondering the same thing we are: What’s going to be the factor that stimulates voters, gets them to the polls and decides this race?
Will it be the economy/inflation? The person at the top of the ticket? Party and turnout? Public safety? Abortion or gun rights? Defense of democracy and voters’ rights? Or that undefined thing called “woke?”
That’s what we asked a group of elections and polling experts who keep their fingers on the pulse of such issues in North Carolina, and their answers were as widely divergent as you would expect at this point in an election cycle, with candidate filing still five months away — Dec. 4 — and the primary in March.
Name recognition, this time around, is not a factor. The names on the ballots are largely recognizable – although polling suggests that voters aren’t as aware of them as you might think.
Running are Republicans Dale Folwell, the state treasurer; Mark Robinson, the lieutenant governor; and Mark Walker, a former 3-term member of Congress; Democrat Josh Stein, the 2-term attorney general; and Libertarians Shannon Bray, a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2022; and Mike Ross, a business owner and newcomer.
Robinson, in his second political race, is considered the front-runner, and recent polling by Elon University suggests that he is more widely known than his competitors and has a 45% awareness/favorability factor, compared to 44% for Stein, 35% for Walker and 31% for Folwell.
The race U.S. News & World Report recently rated as a toss-up figures to attract big dollars but also to be decided on nuance as much as anything, these experts suggest. And that’s largely because of the ever-shifting menu of issues and how candidates choose to market themselves. Only one thing remains consistent: their affiliations.
We asked our panel of experts at about the time Walker entered the race and before Robinson and former President Donald Trump exchanged vows of personal endorsement.
It was also before Robinson’s most recent dalliances with extreme conservative elements – Mom’s for Liberty and Michael Flynn’s upcoming ReAwaken America Tour – supplemented the reputation he built after a guns-rant-gone-viral on social media in 2018 made him famous enough to get his current job.
That drew focus to Robinson’s history of outrageous comments in speeches and social media, leveling his vocal guns at the LGBTQ community, gun rights, abortion rights, climate change, women, race and public education, to name a few. The most recent was his defense of teaching the words of Adolf Hitler.
Walker, who formerly represented the 6th Congressional District, and Folwell, who was in the General Assembly before being elected treasurer in 2017, have said they want voters to have a choice other than a man they think would be ill-suited to be the fourth Republican to serve as governor.
Stein is following the same path that led Roy Cooper, the former AG, to a narrow victory over Pat McCrory in 2016, the same year Trump won North Carolina with 49.8% of the vote. He also won a close race in the state in 2020, when Roy Cooper was re-elected.
But will any of this matter? That’s what we’re asking.
Not about issues
“I don’t think our current political climate allows much room for issues to drive elections,” said Chris Cooper, a professor at Western Carolina University and political expert and co-author of the Old North State Politics blog. “The days of elections serving as debating stages for citizens to learn where the candidates stand are over.
“These are mobilization elections, not persuasion elections. And Mark Robinson and Josh Stein’s positions on almost every current issue can be predicted by knowing nothing more than whether they have a D or an R next to their name.”
That’s why a list of topics provided by WGHP for experts to rank drew very varied approaches. Some did list the suggested issues – think economy/inflation/workforce or public safety or abortion or defending democracy or defending democracy – but a couple of our experts put them in “tiers,” another edited the list and rephrased somewhat.
We promised not to reveal the full list of specifics, but we do cherry-pick responses and comments. And there seems resonance with the subtopics related to Chris Cooper’s assertion that party matters more than principle.
What polling shows
Martin Kifer, who runs the High Point University Poll, relied on data gathered and analyzed from those frequent and sometimes very-fine-line polling, to offer his thoughts on the key issues.
“As a public opinion person (not a strategist), I am not sure I can tell you what will determine the outcome of the governor’s race – especially this far out,” Kifer wrote in an email. “But our Associate Director Brian McDonald and I have done some additional analysis on a poll from earlier this year to give a snapshot of what North Carolinians are thinking about.”
The data he provided broke down the factors considered “very important” to voters by how important they are to Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters.
“One thing I notice is that *every* [Kifer’s emphasis] list has ‘School Safety’ at the top,” he said. “Education is the top 5 for all lists, as well. Particularly between partisan groups, there are some differences in what is in the top 10.”
Grouping into tiers
Eric Heberlig, a government professor and campaign finance expert from North Carolina Charlotte, puts those topics in his second tier of priorities – where he also has abortion, candidates’ experiences, voter turnout, who the presidential nominee is and crime/public safety.
Heberlig said the issues in his first tier – the candidate’s party affiliation and economy/inflation/workforce “are always important and help shape how people evaluate the other potential considerations in the race. Some of the issues are more likely to mobilize certain groups of voters (‘woke’ agenda, voting rights) rather than persuading swing voters. I ranked them in lower tiers.
“The issues I put in the third tier are likely to depend on events and the timing of those events. Guns/school safety is getting a lot of attention now, but we’ve seen in past shooting events that public opinion shifts away from gun control when these issues are no longer in the news.
“So, if there is a major incident within a month or two of the election, it is likely to be important; otherwise, it will just mobilize the pro-gun voters who are consistently passionate about their preferences.”
Asher Hildebrand is a former Democratic operative now on the faculty at Duke University, and he thinks the presidential nominee will be the determining factor in this race, followed by the predictable forces of abortion and the economy. He also thinks that the defense of democracy/voting rights will be a factor.
“However the 2024 election was shaping up before the General Assembly’s decision to charge ahead with new abortion restrictions — against the will of a clear majority of North Carolinians — will push abortion rights to the top of voters’ minds,” Hildebrand said. “It’s hard to imagine a worse combination for Republicans than Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, Mark Robinson in the governor’s race, and abortion rights on the ballot.
“But if the economy tanks, due in part to the Fed’s over-aggressive interest rate hikes, that could be their lifeline.”
The unaffiliated vote
Kifer also drew a direct correlation to an issue about which we didn’t ask: How can unaffiliated voters be attracted to align with one party or the other? As of Saturday, about 36% of the state’s 7,285,557 registered voters were unaffiliated, with 33.1% being registered as Democrats and 30.2% as Republicans, so the “U” group appears to be the decisive group.
The HPU Poll team calculates “a rough ‘issue ownership’ score for issues by subtracting the percentage of people who say Republicans would do a better job from the percentage of people who say Democrats would do a better job,” Kifer said.
That analysis found that both Democrats and independents feel that Democrats would do a better job with managing climate change, civil rights, abortion rights – although the independents were more convinced than the Dems, 10% to 4% – and health care in general. They were about even on education and voting integrity.
But Republicans would seem to own issues such as inflation/job creation – in contrast to recent jobs reports – supporting veterans, law enforcement, fighting opioids and handling taxes. And those points were reinforced clearly among independents, such as 1 in 5 respondents saying the GOP was better at handling veterans’ affairs and law enforcement. In every aspect, independent respondents expressed stronger belief in that than did Republicans.
“I focused on Independents/Unaffiliated because it is possible parties will be looking at their preferences in the General Election,” Kifer said. “They do not look much different than the All Adults (general public), but there *may* be at least some small difference. …
“Some of the most important issues for All Adults, Registered Voters, and partisans, such as School Safety and Education, may be toss-up issues (where neither party has much of an advantage) or lean slightly to the Republican Party – though with these smaller samples, it is more difficult to know.”
Or perhaps not?
What we don’t know at this point is if 2024 will be a presidential rematch between President Joe Biden and Trump, as current polling would suggest, or if the mounting legal challenges for Trump could elevate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Trump’s right or South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott or former SC Gov. Nikki Haley, to pick two, on his left.
But all of that figures to play a role in whether one of the Republicans, Stein or someone else moves into the governor’s mansion.
To that point, somewhat like Heberlig, Chris Cooper ranked our 12 suggested topics in his preferred order, but he inserted a blank line after his top three choices: the candidate’s party affiliation, voter turnout and who the presidential nominees are.
“I’ve ranked them below in the order that I think they follow,” Chris Cooper said, “with the gap there not on accident, but on purpose.”