For months, political analysts have been predicting that 2018 will be a great year for Democrats, especially in swing states like North Carolina. These predictions were bolstered by Democrats flipping state legislative seats and governorships in Virginia and New Jersey, and even a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama. Just last week a Democrat won a special election in Missouri for a district that Donald Trump won by 28 points. Combined with Trump’s historically low approval ratings, there is increasing talk of a “Blue Wave” sweeping the country.
Recent evidence suggests that Republicans may be better positioned than many pundits think. A recent Meredith College Poll of likely midterm voters shows that Republicans may have a strong year in 2018. Voter enthusiasm, as measured by people’s stated intent to vote, shows that almost 90 percent of both Democrats and Republicans express a strong desire to vote in November.
The poll also revealed that voter preferences for Democratic and Republican candidates are also essentially equal. The “generic ballot” questions for congressional and state legislative candidates showed that North Carolinians prefer Republican candidates over Democratic candidates by very thin margins, belying earlier national polls showing the generic ballot favoring Democrats by more than 10 percent.
There are many reasons Democrats should not be overly confident of their chances in North Carolina and nationally. The most obvious is the electoral maps. Despite numerous court challenges, it is nearly impossible for Democrats to pick up a majority of the U.S. House seats or those in the General Assembly under current maps.
Trump’s approval rating is not going to be as big of a drag on Republican candidates in North Carolina as many predict. A huge majority of registered Republicans in the sample – over 86 percent – approve of Trump’s performance as president. Though Trump still has a significant gender gap with North Carolina women (-10 percent), as well as with minority voters (-60 percent with African American voters), he is popular in congressional and legislative districts held by Republicans.
Another issue is the tribalism that characterizes today’s political culture, wherein citizens feel extremely loyal to their “team.” Although most Democrats disapprove of the Republican Party and the Republican leadership in the General Assembly, Republicans disapprove of Democrats by a much greater margin. Any attacks on their president or other Republicans only drive an even stronger preference for their candidates. Democrats, nationally and in North Carolina, might be better served by shifting their campaign strategy to one with a more positive message.
Finally, North Carolinians are more satisfied with how things are going in the state than they are about the direction of the country. The fall Meredith Poll found that almost 70 percent felt that the country was going in the wrong direction, but our recent poll found that almost half feel satisfied with things in North Carolina.
In today’s political culture, the only guarantee is that nothing is guaranteed. So much can change between now and Election Day in November, with the volatility of the president and some signs of economic uncertainty on Wall Street. Although the storied Democratic Blue Wave may appear to be more of a ripple right now, over the next nine months it could build into a tsunami or completely fizzle out.
McLennan is a professor of political science and Manzo is an assistant professor of political science at Meredith College in Raleigh. They direct the Meredith Poll.