The Party Line
1:07 pm
Fri August 23, 2013

NC's Political Shift Borne Out In Data

Michael Bitzer
Michael Bitzer

North Carolina has garnered a lot of media attention in the last few weeks, and dependent upon the political and ideological persuasion of the observer, the state is either: 1., headed for the ultimate demise of Western civilization, or 2., resurrected itself and found its true political nature.

For example, political observers, such as Al Hunt and the New York Times, have mourned the loss of the “North Carolina way,” an approach that was much more moderate than the rightward shift seen since the GOP took complete control of the General Assembly and governor’s office.

On the other side of the political aisle, conservative columnist Stephen Moore of the Wall Street Journal believes that the Republican actions, especially on tax cuts, will “spur growth and job creation,” while acknowledging that the GOP may have overplayed its hand when it comes to “ballot-access” in the new election law. 

Both sides may rhetorically overplay the political extremes, but a deeper understanding of North Carolina’s modern political history could give a nuanced perception of the state’s ideological composition.

Unlike many of its deeper Southern sister states who marched into the GOP ranks since the 1980s, North Carolina had a tendency to moderately swing from one side to the other: this was the state that, at one time in the not-to-distant past, had both arch conservative Jesse Helms serving with progressive-leaning John Edwards in the U.S. Senate. 

Even further back, while it went for Ronald Reagan at the presidential level in 1980, Tar Heel voters split their tickets and went Democratic in electing Gov. Jim Hunt

But when the history is fully written about the Republican revolution in 2010, instigated by the Tea Party insurgency, there may be a deeper impact on the state’s politics than first realized.

From 1998 to 2008, North Carolina’s ideological composition had ranged in a “center-right” fashion, according to the general election exit polls.

Typically, self-identified “conservatives” were one-third of the electorate, and self-identified liberals about 16 percent.  But with 44 percent of the electorate declaring themselves “moderate,” neither ideological extreme could claim a mandate from one election to the next without the help of the center.

In 2010, however, there may have been the seismic shift needed to reshape the state’s ideological brand.  Conservatives jumped to 45 percent of the electorate, and then leveled off to 40 percent two years later.

Liberals also saw a rise in their numbers, but were still at half of the percentage of conservatives in 2012’s election.  It seems that the dramatic shift could be attributed to the loss of the middle, with moderates dropping below 40 percent in the past two elections.

The dual actions of the “conservative” rise and “centrist” decline over the past two election cycles may be overreaching, especially since moderates have already turned against both Gov. McCrory and the legislative GOP.  In the most recent Public Policy Polling of the state, 19 percent of moderates approved of McCrory, and only 12% approved of the General Assembly.

While the rise of the “independent” has been discussed for some time at the national level, and the fastest growing voter registration is among “unaffiliated” voters, the rebranding of Tar Heel politics is substantially due to the ideological shift that the state has seen.

While there is some reason to believe that the Tea Party strength has been diluted, the recent steeping of North Carolina’s politics could last longer than the tallest glass of house wine of the South.