It’s probably just a coincidence that the Pantone company chose “Very Peri,” a vibrant purple, as its 2022 color of the year, but it would be hard to find a better shade to describe North Carolina’s electorate. Both are trending this fall.
Last week, yet another poll showed the U.S. Senate race between Representative Ted Budd and former State Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley effectively tied, the third poll in a row to do so.
Early on, head to head polls showed Budd well in the lead. But the last time he was up beyond the margin of error was in mid-June.
Tom Jensen director of the Raleigh-based Public Policy Poling, whose most recent poll has Beasley up by 1%, said what’s happening here is similar to other key races around the country.
The trend in Beasley’s numbers reflects a significant uptick in enthusiasm nationwide among Democratic voters following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dodd decision in late June overturning constitutional protections for abortion. It’s a dynamic that’s led to a decoupling of the president’s approval rating and prospects for Democratic candidates here and elsewhere.
North Carolina’s contest is drawing more attention nationally, and several ratings organizations have either shifted their calls on the race to toss-up or are considering it.
“If we were talking a year and a half ago, and you told me that on September 6, 2022 nationally, Biden’s going to have 40% approval, 53% disapproval, I’d say Democrats are headed for getting wiped out across the board,” Jensen said. “That’s not the case because of the energy that the Supreme Court gave to the Democratic base because of the concern about abortion.”
Jensen said that energy and a field of good candidates have changed the odds in a cycle that typically skews against the president’s party.
“In 2018, you knew it was going to be a great year for Democrats. In 2010 and 2014, you knew it was going to be a great year for Republicans,” he said. “This year, it’s a lot more complicated than that.”
In North Carolina’s race, the PPP’s top line numbers are close and mirror the state’s fairly even partisan split.
The poll of 601 voters August 29-30 has Beasley with a slight lead over Budd 42% to 41% with 12% undecided. Libertarian Shannon Bray was at 5% and Green Party candidate Matthew Hoh at 1%
But beyond that, the responses show some wide gaps between Beasley and Budd, most notably in favorability. Beasley was above water in the PPP poll at 40% favorable, 30% unfavorable and 30% not sure, while Budd was at 34% favorable, 40% unfavorable and 26% not sure.
For Biden, 54% of those surveyed disapproved of how the president is doing his job, 41% approved and 6% were not sure.
This week, a High Point University poll showed a similar dynamic in a survey that didn’t directly poll the Senate race, but focused on voters preferences. The survey of 786 registered voters from August18-25 put Beasley at 37% favorable, 30% unfavorable with 33% unsure; and Budd at 28% favorable, 41% unfavorable and 31% unsure.
Jensen said there’s also an important story within those overall favorable/unfavorable numbers. Beasley’s favorability with Democrats is at 75% and at 80% of those who voted for Biden in the last election. Budd’s favorability with Republicans is at 51% and 54% for those who voted for former president Donald Trump, who has backed Budd since mid-2021.
“Democrats are super excited about Cheri Beasley and Republicans are not that excited about Ted Budd,” Jensen said.
It’s a distinction that could make a difference in turnout.
“At its core, we’re a 50/50 state, and in 2020, Republicans won most everything 51 to 49 because they turned out at a rate six points higher than Democrats,” he said. The big question over the next nine weeks, he said, is whether that enthusiasm gap offsets the turnout advantage Republicans had in 2020.
Gap in young voters
The PPP poll shows the favorability gap even wider among voters 18-45, now the state’s largest group of voters by registration, but a demographic with traditionally lower turnout.
Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer, who has been chronicling the generational shifts in voting patterns, said voter turnout among Gen Z and Millennial voters has been steadily growing.
Their turnout rate was about 20 percentage points lower than the statewide rate in 2018, but in 2020 that had dropped to 14 percentage points lower.
If turnout among younger voters continues to increase, then the state’s purple status starts shifting bluer in the long term, Bitzer said. This year, that could mean a different voter pool that was was expected going into this cycle.
“If voters under 40 are truly energized, then things could track very differently from what we might expect, but it would continue a trend that has been evident for at least two election cycles now in this state,” Bitzer said.
Both Jensen and Bitzer said given the stakes, they’re confident that 2022 should maintain the state’s trend toward higher turnout elections.
Both point to the last two years as an indication that turnout this year will again be heavy. There was a 75% voter turnout in the hotly contested 2020 presidential cycle, the highest since 1968, Bitzer said. Two years before that, 2018 defied off-year trends.
“For 2018’s ‘blue-moon’ election cycle, with no U.S. Senate race or other major statewide race on the ballot, it was 53% percent,” Bitzer said. “For comparison, 2010 and 2014 were 43% and 44%, respectively. That was impressive.”