Polling results don’t serve to enlighten

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What do North Carolina voters think of the job Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has done over his first two and a half years in the office? The signals are mixed at the moment.

Our state is one of the most extensively polled in the country. Because our electorate is closely divided and our statewide races are highly competitive, parties, candidates and independent-expenditure groups often commission surveys. These surveys don’t always stay private. Moreover, several universities and two other organizations, the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling and the conservative Civitas Institute, produce regular North Carolina polls for public consumption.

Having lots of polling data does not necessarily ensure clarity, however. Consider the two latest surveys from PPP and Civitas. Both taken in June, they told different stories about Cooper’s approval. One depicted the governor in a favorable light. The other depicted him in precarious shape.

If you guessed that the Democratic firm PPP gave Cooper the good news, you’ve got it wrong. Its June 17-18 survey of 610 registered voters put the governor at 40 percent approval and 41 percent disapproval. In the Civitas/Harper Polling survey of 500 likely voters, taken June 8-10, 53 percent approved of Cooper’s job performance while 34 percent disapproved.

What explains this divergence? The slight difference in timing is unlikely to matter much. The Civitas sample has a tighter screen, likely voters vs. registered ones, and it makes sense that North Carolinians who follow politics more closely and vote routinely would be less undecided about Cooper. But the undecided respondents were 18 percent in the PPP poll and 12 percent in the Civitas one. That doesn’t explain much.

Sometimes question order explains poll results. Questions about polarizing figures or political issues can get respondents thinking in more partisan terms as they then encounter a job-approval question. Such an explanation doesn’t help here, however, because in both cases the job-approval question for Cooper followed questions about Donald Trump and his potential Democratic challengers.

Interestingly, on other matters the two polls didn’t generate significantly different results. Both had the Democrats and Republicans neck-in-neck in a generic-ballot test for state legislature in 2020. PPP had President Donald Trump’s job rating at 46 percent approval to 49 percent disapproval, not statistically distinguishable from Civitas/Harper’s 47 percent to 51 percent.

And both found deterioration in Cooper’s political standing. PPP’s previous public poll, released in January, had the governor above water at 44 percent approval/35 percent disapproval. On the Civitas tracker, the governor’s approval has dropped five points since March while his disapproval has gone up five points.

In a hypothetical 2020 matchup, PPP has Cooper leading Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest by 45 percent to 41 percent. Civitas has Cooper at 47 percent and Forest at 37 percent. The first finding should make the governor’s political team very nervous. But even the second finding should make them uncomfortable. Cooper is below the 50-percent mark. And his political standing has been declining this year, not improving.

When Democrats broke the Republicans’ veto-proof majorities in the North Carolina General Assembly last November, that empowered Cooper. It also subjected him to greater risk. His proposals were no longer disposable. His vetoes were no longer symbolic.

At the moment, the governor and GOP lawmakers are facing off over the state budget. Cooper is telegraphing that he’ll veto it if it doesn’t include Medicaid expansion, a core issue for the Democratic base. Republican leaders are telegraphing that they and their own political base won’t accept such a vast expansion of the welfare state.

The governor seems to think that centering his budget message on Medicaid expansion is a winning strategy. I don’t see any evidence of that yet. Poll questions on the subject are problematic because respondents are rarely presented with the cost (in federal and state taxes) and frequently mistake Medicaid for Medicare.

I’m not certain why Cooper fared so differently in the two polls. I am fairly certain that his Medicaid gambit won’t boost him in either one.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation. Follow him @JohnHoodNC.

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