John Hood: GOP ahead on key issues

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 30, 2024

By John Hood

A little over a year ago, I penned a column using polling data to explore why North Carolinians appeared to favor Republicans over Democrats in generic-ballot tests.

“No, it isn’t just because of unfair redistricting,” I wrote. “Nor is it a lack of resources. North Carolina Democrats have raised and spent lots of money on races they still ended up losing. What I mean is that, on many of the public’s top concerns, Democrats lack credibility with the swing voters they need to prevail.”

That is, of the 10 issues ranked most important in a March 2023 survey by High Point University, North Carolinians preferred Republican positions for six of them. On three, voters had no clear preference. On only one highly-rated issue, health care, did Democrats enjoy an edge.

Well, HPU’s polling unit recently issued a comparable survey of 829 North Carolina voters. It still shows GOP with a modest lead on the generic ballot. And it still identifies issue saliency as a potential explanation.

The survey listed 20 policy topics, then asked voters to rate their importance. Here are the top 10, ranked according to how many respondents called them “very important”: inflation, national security, school safety, health care, supporting veterans, protecting democracy, gas prices, taxes, education and immigration.

Voters were then asked which party they thought would do a better job dealing with each issue. A sizable share of respondents, exceeding a third in some cases, expressed no preference between the parties. And for three of the 20, the differences in party preference were too small to be of consequence.

On the rest of the issues, however, one party enjoyed a clear advantage. Forty-three percent of North Carolina voters said Democrats would do a better job on climate change, for example, while just 23 percent said the Republicans would. On the flipside, 42 percent picked Republicans to tackle gas prices, with 29 percent picking Democrats.

As before, the latter’s challenge is that voters in the 2024 survey give the GOP the edge on six of the top-10 issues: gas prices, national security, inflation, supporting veterans, immigration and taxes. Indeed, Republicans have double-digit leads on all but taxes. Voters prefer Democrats on health care, education and protecting democracy — salient issues, to be sure, though the party’s advantages aren’t particularly large (8 percent, 5 percent and 4 percent, respectively). On the final issue, school safety, there was no partisan lean.

Now, to say that Republicans are better positioned on highly-ranked issues is not to say they are destined to prevail. Other factors matter as least as much, including the quality of candidates, the financial and other resources available to the two parties and how effectively they’re deployed.

More to the point, some of the salient issues in question are more applicable to federal races than state ones. For the relatively small group of swing voters likely to determine the outcome of tight legislative or council of state races, general partisan leanings on, say, national security or immigration may not seem relevant.

So far, as usual, Democratic candidates for state-level offices are faring better than their federal counterparts. That HPU poll had Trump leading Biden for president and Democratic Josh Stein leading Republican Mark Robinson for governor, although neither difference lay outside the credibility interval of 3.4 points.

 A Carolina Journal poll conducted last month put Trump five points ahead of Biden in our state, even as Stein and Robinson were tied at 39 percent each. An East Carolina University poll taken a couple of weeks ago also had Trump ahead by five, with Stein and Robinson tied. Recent surveys for Cook Political Report, The Hill and other outlets show similar dynamics.

Standard disclaimers apply. Polls are snapshots in time, and data this early in the cycle aren’t necessarily predictive of what will happen after months of news events and campaign ads. Nevertheless, Democrats will enter the homestretch of the 2024 cycle with at least one disadvantage: their best issues aren’t top-of-mind for most voters.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history (