The November election is almost a year away, but Democrats are already focused on it like kids a week before Christmas. And polls – driven by President Trump’s regular but still startling outbursts – show that the results for Democrats may exceed even their already high expectations.
Much can happen before November. The nation could enter an unforeseen crisis or Trump could achieve a sense of self-control, but neither is as likely as more of what we have now – a general calm often broken by a president who’s an embarrassment to his office and the nation.
In a discussion with reporters last week, Democratic pollster Fred Yang outlined what looks to him like a surge favoring Democrats across the nation and especially in North Carolina.
“There is a sign that the Republican Party is in big trouble for 2018,” he said. “There is a tremendous enthusiasm advantage for Democrats.”
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Citing the results of a December survey of 602 likely North Carolina voters, Yang said 67 percent of Democrats described themselves as highly motivated to vote compared to 51 percent of Republicans, a 16-point enthusiasm gap.
Yang said the Democratic enthusiasm in North Carolina had an “eerie” similarity to what polling showed before Virginia’s general election last November. In that vote, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam defeated former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie by 9 points, and Democrats picked up 15 seats in the House of Delegates.
In North Carolina the results could be magnified by early voting, which is unavailable in Virginia, and by the unpopularity of the General Assembly. Yang’s polling found a 35 percent approval rating for the legislature compared to a 55 percent disapproval rating. The Republican brand itself is also sinking in the state, he said, scoring a 30 percent positive rating versus a 47 percent negative (up from 37 percent negative in 2016).
Whether a blue tsunami will swamp the high seawalls of gerrymandering that guard North Carolina Republicans’ congressional and legislative election districts is an evolving issue. Those walls may be lowered by court rulings ordering new district maps to replace illegally gerrymandered districts.
Former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, a Democrat, joined with former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, a Republican, to push for an end to gerrymandering in 2014. He said the partisan lines will be a obstacle for Democrats to regain control of the legislature. He estimates that Democrats would need to win by a 15 percent statewide margin to take control of the General Assembly.
Dallas Woodhouse, the state’s GOP executive director, expects some Republican losses given the historic pattern of midterm elections, but he told The News & Observer he thinks the Democratic surge will be concentrated in urban counties where Democrats already hold legislative seats.
Wayne Goodwin, the former state Commissioner of Insurance who now heads the North Carolina Democratic Party, is struggling to keep Democrats from assuming a win that’s not yet won.
In midterm elections, he said, “the party out of power tends to do better, but we can’t merely rely on history, we have to make history happen.” He added, “There is a long time politically between now and next November.”
Nonetheless, Goodwin is impressed by the intensity of Democrats. A former state legislator who has been active in North Carolina politics since 1980, he said he has never seen such a strong desire to run and to vote.
The state Democratic Party is pushing to challenge Republicans in all their districts. Doing that would mark a big change in a state where gerrymandering discourages challengers. Of the 170 General Assembly seats, less that half were contested in 2014 and 2016 and only a handful had close results.
Some Democrats are signing up to run in safe Republican districts to keep pressure on Republican resources across the state. “More people are willing to take one for the team than ever before,” Goodwin said. “They are frustrated and excited at the same time.”
Many candidates are coming forth, he said, “I anticipate we will have the most diverse and exciting field running in a long, long time.”
Pollster Yang said state politics will drive some Democrats to the polls in November, but the big motivator will be a chance to cast a protest vote against Trump.
Asked whether the lack of a prominent statewide race will dampen turnout in North Carolina, Yang answered with a question: “Do you think Donald Trump will still be president in November?”
If he’s in, it now looks like a lot of other Republicans will be out.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@ newsobserver.com