Civitas polling indicates that the November election could certainly reset the balance of power in the North Carolina General Assembly. It is a similar story to what happened in 1994.
Indicators are based on a legislative generic ballot question asked every month in Civitas’ statewide poll:”"If the election for North Carolina state legislature were held today, would you be voting:” for the Democratic candidate or the Republican candidate?
It’s a simple straightforward question that tries to find out the mindset of the voter. At this point in time, do voters have a preference for one party over the other at the state level? The result of this question allows broad trends to be discovered and, more importantly, establishes a consistent baseline that can be compared to on a month to month basis from one election cycle to another. Looking at the generic ballot question from Civitas’ March poll, the Republicans hold a two-point lead 37 percent to 35 percent. While this may seem insignificant, the slight lead for Republicans is significant for a couple of reasons. First, Democrats hold a 14 percentage point advantage in voter registration in North Carolina, so Democrats start out with a sizeable advantage based solely on registration. Second, this is only the third time in five years of Civitas polling that Republicans have held a generic ballot lead. Democrats have held, on average, a 3-5 point generic ballot lead each month over the history of Civitas’ polls.
Perhaps more significant for Republicans, given that voter turnout will be critical in 2010, is that of voters who say they are “definitely voting” in November. The lead then for Republicans grows to four points (39 percent-35 percent). Among very likely voters, Republican lead is two points, while Democrats lead by four among voters only somewhat likely to vote.
With the most likely voters favoring Republicans and less likely voters favoring Democratic candidates, it sets the stage for the potential of large Republican gains. Looking at these similar numbers from the most recent election cycles, the significance of this intensity gap for Republicans becomes even more apparent.
If you take the average Democratic generic ballot lead of four points, having the Republicans up by two-to-four point margin represents a minimum six percentage point shift in the average electorate. With close legislative elections often decided by just a few hundred votes, a six-point shift is enough to flip the outcome of a number of legislative races.
To give an example of the size of this shift in the generic ballot, one only needs to look back roughly a year and a half ago to October 2008, when North Carolina was on the precipice of a Democratic tidal wave that swept President Obama, Governor Perdue and many other Democratic candidates into office.
In the Civitas poll taken in mid-October 2008, Democrats held a nine-point generic ballot lead (and a 10-point lead among those “definitely likely” to vote). Today, Republicans lead by two. That represents an 11-point shift in the electorate from October 2008 to today, a type of move that is rarely seen in politics. The effect of that 11-point shift is that many seats traditionally thought to be Democratic-leaning may all of a sudden become competitive this year.
But just what is causing this monumental shift? It is coming from two places: one, unaffiliated voters are fleeing Democratic candidates and two; Democrats are not holding their base vote as solid as they were in 2008.
In October 2008, unaffiliated voters preferred Democrats to Republicans by an eight-point margin (37-29). In March 2010, those same unaffiliated voters prefer Republicans by a 20-point margin – a net change of 28 percentage points. Support for Democrats from unaffiliated voters has fallen so far that today only 12 percent of unaffiliated voters say they are voting Democratic, almost similar to the support Democratic candidates receive from registered Republicans. Issues such as health care and high government spending are driving unaffiliated voters away in droves.
Additionally, Democrats have seen their base erode while Republicans have solidified theirs. Again comparing October 2008 to March 2010, the percentage of registered Democrats saying they were supporting the Democratic candidate has dropped from 75 percent to 65 percent. Meanwhile Republican crossover vote (Republicans voting Democratic) has declined as well, going from 12 percent down to 6 percent.
What all this means is that, at the current time, signs point to a significant tide towards the Republicans and that many seats that lean Democratic could very well be in play come November. There are 14 seats in the NC House that are rated as neutral or lean Republican according to Civitas’ NC Partisan Index that are currently held by Democrats. An additional 10 seats held by Democrats are rated as leaning Democratic (D+1 – D+4) that could very well be in play as well if the significant Republican tide continues. Republicans only need to win nine of those 24 seats to win the majority in the NC House of Representatives.
In the NC Senate, seven seats that are held by Democrats are considered Republican leaning, and an additional six more are leaning Democratic seats that could also be in play. Republicans need to win six of those 13 seats to take that chamber for the first time since Reconstruction.
It is a long time politically from now until Election Day in November and Democrats maintain significant advantages in terms of incumbency, organization and money that will attempt to blunt much of the Republican tide that may be coming. But as of right now, the tide is certainly in the Republicans’ favor – whether than can capitalize on that and capture legislative majorities is entirely up to them.