The “New” Old North State: By The Numbers

As North Carolina’s political landscape rapidly changes and statewide elections become more competitive, news organizations, polling firms and partisan groups increasingly flood the political information chain with poll after poll.

While firmly believing more information is better than less (and both sides of the political fight should welcome good information) I also believe too much attention is given to a survey’s topline numbers. That’s because, in most cases, it doesn’t tell the voting environment’s real story.

Case-In-Point

In North Carolina’s recent US Senate race, very few media reports on polling showed Thom Tillis leading Kay Hagan. In fact, a Washington Times reporter seized on my comment about Tillis’ internal survey never showing him in the lead. What he failed to report was the more crucial point: For the past month, Tillis was leading with most likely voters. While this fact was reflected the media’s own survey research, the reporting consistently focused on the topline number instead of the more telling internal numbers.

Assuming the media generally tries to objectively report fact instead of deliberately misinforming the public, this underscores the need for a higher level of understanding on what surveys actually mean. This problem is by no means limited to the press, but widespread among political practitioners.

Three weeks out from Election Day, the Tillis campaign released an internal survey demonstrating Kay Hagan’s voter turnout problem. Failing to act on what should’ve been an obvious and fundamental oversight, Hagan’s so-called “perfect campaign” failed to reverse course, cementing her legacy as a one-term senator. Because our internal and public research all pointed to a victory on Election Day, the Tillis campaign prepared one speech for November 4th – a victory speech.

The “New” North Carolina

As the party reflecting the white male conservative voter, dominating state offices for most of the 20th century, Democrat’s political roots grow deep. However, the legacy of the rural voter was replaced with a 21st century liberal urban voter following Barack Obama’s 2008 nationalization of the Democratic Party.

For Republicans, our party is one that grew from the national elections of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. With control of all three branches of state government for the first time in well over 100 years, we are a party that is laying roots at the state level.

Moving forward, since neither major party represents a clear majority of registered voters, both need to develop a better understanding of how to message and motivate voters who are most likely to determine the winners of our statewide contests, i.e. the Unaffiliated voter.

Unaffiliated voters are the fastest growing voting population of registered voters. To better understand how these voters impact who’ll win or lose, understanding them is essential to electoral success.

By The Numbers

In a recent statewide survey conducted for a client, all voters were asked to describe their political ideology as either Conservative, Moderate or Liberal. 43% said Conservative, 29.8% Moderate and 22.1% Liberal.

On the surface, North Carolina may look like a conservative-leaning state. However, when asked whether they’re Very Conservative, Somewhat Conservative, Very Liberal or Somewhat Liberal, the state begins to look conservative to moderate. The findings were 22.9% Very Conservative, 20.1% Somewhat Conservative, 29.8% Moderate, 12% Somewhat Liberal and 10.1% Very Liberal.

This movement is driven by the Unaffiliated voter. Overall, 74.1% of Republicans call themselves Conservatives, 43.9 % saying Very Conservative and 30.2% saying Somewhat. Only 21.2% say they’re Moderate and 3.6% Liberal.

19.3% of Democrats said they were Conservative, with 7.9% saying Very Conservative and 11.3% saying Somewhat Conservative. 34.3% called themselves Moderates and 40.2 % said Liberal with 22.7% saying Somewhat Liberal and 17.6% saying Very Liberal.

Now for the Unaffiliated voters: 39.9% said they were Conservatives (remember the overall number for NC, 43% – split 22.9% Very Conservative to 20.1% Somewhat), the split for Unaffiliated voters was 19.6% Very conservative, 20.3% somewhat Conservative. 37.8% said they were Moderate and 15.5% said they were Liberal, split between 7.4% Somewhat Liberal to 8.1% Very Liberal.

The Importance of the Unaffiliated

From a self-described ideological review of how voters see themselves, the Unaffiliated voter is closer to the ideological profile of the state as a whole, than either of the two major parties.

Unless either party can surpass the registration trends of recent years where the Unaffiliated represent the fastest growing segment of voters, the ideological center of the state will rest squarely with this group. A candidate’s ability to communicate and win this group of voters will be critical to winning a statewide election.

It’s also worth noting that while most polls showed Thom Tillis trailing Kay Hagan overall, they also showed Thom Tillis leading among Independent or Unaffiliated voters. As reported in their October 20, 2014 release, even the Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling showed Tillis leading 43 to 38 with Independents.

From the perspective of a former student of statistics and current political practitioner, understanding the real meaning “behind the numbers” has more than a practical application. It also provides a unique glimpse into the state we live in today, as well as where we’ll be tomorrow. Over the course of the 2016 election cycle, it’s my hope to share additional insights to help all gain a better understanding of both emerging electoral trends and the “new” North Carolina.