When I began my syndicated column in 1986, politics in North Carolina, and in America more generally, was strikingly different from today’s political scene in many ways. How voters get and process political information has changed, for example. Campaign strategy and tactics have adjusted accordingly.
Another big change concerns how the nation’s two largest political parties are composed and deployed. They used to be more ideologically diverse. In the 1980s, there were still many conservative Democrats, often but not always in the South and Midwest, as well as some left-leaning Republicans in the Northeast and West.
That’s pretty much all over. Voters have sorted themselves ideologically. Nevertheless, what I’m struck by is how “sticky” public perceptions of the two parties have proved to be.
During the 1980s and 1990s, it was common for polls to find that, generally speaking, voters tended to have greater confidence in Republicans on economic and foreign-policy questions. They tended to favor the Democrats on health care and education. To some extent, which side prevailed in a given election depended on which issues topped the priority list for voters.
Just to be clear, these partisan preferences weren’t typically gigantic, typically in the high single digits or low double digits. Most Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters preferred Democratic positions on all issues. The same was true for the GOP coalition. However, the “swing” voters, those without strong partisan loyalties, had a more eclectic mix of positions — rightward on some things, leftward on others. Polls of the total electorate reflected that.
One very big change in politics, as I’ve noted in this space many times before, is that the population of swing voters is now far smaller. Back in the day, as many as a quarter of North Carolina voters were willing to split their tickets. In 1980, Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt won 62% of the vote for reelection. He ran 15 points ahead of Jimmy Carter, who lost North Carolina narrowly to Ronald Reagan’s 49% of the vote.
As recently as 2004, Democratic Gov. Mike Easley won reelection with 56% of the vote. Simultaneously, North Carolina voted strongly for President George W. Bush’s reelection — he also won 56%!
That kind of result strikes every politico I know as unthinkable in today’s North Carolina, even if we end up with two highly controversial nominees — Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders — and the top of the partisan tickets. Our electorate is more polarized. The share of true swing voters is in the single digits.
What I find fascinating, however, is that despite all these important and consequential changes, voter perceptions of the two dominant political brands exhibit stability. Consider an Elon University poll taken in mid-February. Asked which party they trust more on specific issues, North Carolina voters preferred Republicans on such issues as the economy (plus 10 percentage points), support for veterans (plus 11), gun control (plus 6), and foreign affairs (plus 4). They trusted Democrats more on such issues as education (plus 13), healthcare (plus 10), race relations (plus 13), and the environment (plus 20).
Of course, some Republican ideas on education, for example, poll very well. Some Democratic ideas on the economy poll very well. Nor am I saying that how voters rate the two parties on issues is an accurate reflection of how well the policies implemented by politicians of either party actually work in practice. I am simply observing that the two parties’ traditional “brand attributes,” as a marketer might call them, appear to be deeply imbedded in public perceptions.
Sure, savvy candidates and campaigns can overcome them. Republican Ron DeSantis won Florida’s gubernatorial election in 2018 against a broadly Democratic tide in part by championing parental choice in education, convincing tens of thousands of traditionally Democratic voters, most of them black or Hispanic, to split their tickets.
In large measure, however, the parties tend to play to their strengths. You’ll hear a lot from Republicans this year about economic growth. You’ll hear a lot from Democrats about education and health care. So did your parents and grandparents.