- Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper leads potential Republican challenger Lt. Gov. Dan Forest in June 2019 Civitas Poll
- Initial poll results provide insights about the starting line heading into the 2020 election cycle
Since announcing the formation of an exploratory committee for governor in January, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest has been the presumptive Republican nominee to face off against incumbent Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper in the 2020 gubernatorial contest. The June Civitas Poll asked respondents who they would vote for if the 2020 election were held today, and found Cooper had a significant lead over Forest.
In the hypothetical race, Cooper received 47 percent support while Forest trailed at 37 percent, with 16 percent undecided. The poll surveyed 500 likely voters and the ten point difference is well outside of the poll’s 4.38 percent margin of error.
Do these results tell us that Cooper has the race in the bag? Not quite, but we can draw some takeaways.
Takeaway 1: Cooper enjoys the image of a moderate, despite his far-left policy stances
Civitas Polling has consistently found Cooper’s approval rating to be in the mid-50s (see chart below). Cooper could be benefitting from the thriving state and national economies, although state economy-boosting tax reforms were Republican policies that Cooper seems to oppose.
Cooper also enjoys some level of anonymity – in September of 2018, only 59 percent of Civitas Poll respondents (in a survey of likely voters) could name Cooper as governor. By October, that number had risen to 70 percent, likely due to Cooper’s hurricane response efforts.
The executive in North Carolina is relatively weak in the legislative process, giving Cooper cover to remain silent on controversial issues while only speaking on popular ones. There are two areas, though, that reveal Cooper’s true policy positions: his recommended budgets and his vetoes.
Cooper’s proposed budgets have slashed the scholarship program for low-income children and called for unsustainable borrowing and spending (although that element is no surprise, given his legislative career).
In addition, Cooper’s first term has had its share of scandals, including the Atlantic Coast Pipeline slush fund debacle and his failure to distribute federal aid to Hurricane Matthew victims from 2016.
Does Cooper’s polled approval and electoral success suggest that North Carolinians agree with his policy positions? I would argue that it means they do not know about them, as evidenced by the next takeaway.
Takeaway 2: Forest faces an uphill battle for positive coverage
It is no secret that a majority (although not all) of the mainstream media, nationally and in North Carolina, is left-leaning. That could be why many of Cooper’s scandals have not gotten the attention that a similar scandal from a Republican may have garnered.
Forest’s six and a half years as lieutenant governor have done little to define his public image. The November 2018 Civitas Poll found that Forest had a 21 percent favorable image, with 11 percent unfavorable. A full 33 percent of respondents said they had never heard of him. As a reminder, this is a poll of likely voters, and Forest was halfway through his second four-year term as lieutenant governor at that point.
This can be both a blessing and a curse for Forest going into 2020. He essentially has a blank slate to define his image. However, the media is not likely to let us forget his strong support of House Bill 2, North Carolina’s infamous 2016 “bathroom bill.” Bill sponsor Dan Bishop, now running for Congress, has seen the media try to define him by that legislation in his current race. Bishop has since won two elections for state Senate and one GOP primary for the ninth congressional district. The outcome of his general election for that race could be a foreshadow of how the issue could be at play in the 2020 gubernatorial race.
Unlike Bishop, though, Forest will be running for a statewide office. Many speculate that former Gov. Pat McCrory’s stance on HB2 cost him his reelection bid. However, McCrory seemed to flip-flop on the issue, whereas Forest thus far has retained the conservative position on the bill. In fact, Forest got more votes than Cooper in the 2016 election, although the two obviously were not head-to-head in their contests (Forest also received more votes than President Donald Trump).
Forest may have a battle ahead, but he tends to align more with voters on issues such as voter ID, lowering taxes, and school choice – IF he can get his message out there.
Takeaway 3: Anything can happen
Being just under the 18-month mark until the election, I would by no means count Forest out of the race.
This contest falls during a presidential election year, with no shortage of feelings on both political sides about Pres. Trump’s reelection bid that can get people out to the polls. But, as we saw with a Trump-Cooper victory in North Carolina, the races are distinct and can have varied outcomes.
I would not say that these initial results indicate a “blue wave” in North Carolina. Civitas Polling on ideology and policy issues suggests that North Carolina is a center-right state. Civitas Elections Policy Analyst Andy Jackson recently explained that the voter registration and election outcome data does not, in fact, suggest that North Carolina is turning blue (Part 1 and Part 2 here). His findings suggest unaffiliated voters are the key for 2020. The August 2018 Civitas Poll found that unaffiliated voters tend to be center-right, as well, which could help Forest if he is able to brand himself that way.