RALEIGH — North Carolinians appear to be more committed to voting this November than they have been in the past four election cycles, but there is no clear consensus on some important political issues, according to a statewide poll released Thursday by the John Locke Foundation.
JLF’s Agenda 2004 poll found that about 85 percent of respondents said they were “extremely” likely to vote in 2004. This represented the highest level of voter interest since the biannual poll debuted in1996. During the last presidential election in 2000 — a race that also draw tremendous attention and controversy — only 70 percent said they were “extremely” likely to vote.
Heightened voter interest in the 2004 elections has been accompanied by significant divisions on many of the issues facing North Carolina, and does not mean that likely voters are highly informed about candidates and issues, said JLF President John Hood.
“Relatively few voters remain undecided about federal elections, but many remain uncommitted among state candidates and express mixed views on public-policy issues facing the state,” Hood said.
On one matter to be decided by state voters in November, the Agenda 2004 poll drew an unequivocal response: 70 percent of respondents said they opposed Amendment One, a measure that would alter the state constitution to allow bonds to be issued without a public vote for economic-development projects. Only 22 percent favored the amendment.
On other key political issues being debated in North Carolina this year:
• Voters said that the most important cause of the state’s budget problems since 2001 was that “government spending was too high” (73 percent), not that “taxes were too low” (9 percent). By a 58 percent to 29 percent margin, respondents disagreed with the decision of Gov. Mike Easley and the General Assembly to raise state taxes to close the budget deficits. Two-thirds of voters support a Taxpayer Protection Act to cap state spending growth at the combined rate of inflation and population growth.
• There is increasing support for dedicating gas and car taxes to highway construction and maintenance. About 57 percent of voters in 2004 said that taxes collected from highway users should be “spent only for improving highways,” with 38 percent saying the taxes should be “spent for other uses as well.” As recently as 1998, voters were split on the issue: 48 percent said the state should spend highway-related taxes only on highways vs. 44 percent who endorsed the current approach.
• Voters continued to offer mixed views on parental choice in education. By an overwhelming majority (81 percent to 15 percent), they favored offering a tax deduction for school tuition or educational savings. But opposition for publicly funded scholarship programs to help students in low-performing districts attend schools of choice was 43 percent in 2004, up from 30 percent in 2000. Support for such programs, often called school vouchers, was still larger: 48 percent in 2004 and 51 percent in 2000.
• Economic concerns appear to have increased voter support for economic incentives. In the 2004 survey, 51 percent said they favored “targeted tax relief and subsidies to attract corporations to particular areas of the state,” up from 42 percent in 2002 and 31 percent in 2000.
• North Carolina voters continue to prefer a part-time legislature, with only 33 percent favoring a full-time legislature, 39 percent favoring a part-time legislature operating under rules that limit the number of days a year it meets in regular session, and 21 percent favoring the current system of a part-time legislature with no official limit on session length.
Voters Lack Information
One theme evident from several questions in the Agenda 2004 poll is that North Carolina voters continue to lack important information on political candidates and issues. Asked which party controls the North Carolina Senate, 37 percent of likely voters picked the Republicans, 34 percent said Democrats, and 28 percent said they were unsure. In reality, Republicans haven’t had a majority in the state senate in more than a century.
Similarly, 63 percent of respondents said that air pollution in North Carolina had gotten worse in the past 20 years, while only 18 percent knew that official government statistics clearly show improving air quality and declining emissions during the period.
Few voters remain undecided in federal races. The Agenda 2004 poll found an eight-point lead for Republican George W. Bush over John Kerry, with the president receiving 48 percent to Kerry’s 40 percent. Two percent supported another candidate and 8 percent were not sure. In the U.S. Senate race, the poll found a tight race between Republican Richard Burr (43 percent) and Democrat Erskine Bowles (42 percent), with 5 percent supporting another candidate and 8 percent unsure.
In state races, there was more uncertainty. Democratic Gov. Easley led Republican nominee Patrick Ballantine by a 49 percent to 34 percent margin, with 5 percent supporting another candidate and 11 percent undecided. Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper (48 percent) led Republican challenger Joe Knott (23 percent), Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Britt Cobb (36 percent) led Republican challenger Steve Troxler (29 percent), and Democratic State Auditor Ralph Campbell (38 percent) led Republican challenger Les Merritt (27 percent).
“Obviously, large numbers of North Carolinians do not recognize the names of one or both of the major-party candidates for offices on the Council of State,” Hood said. “Most of these races seem likely to be determined by the strength of each party’s turnout efforts on Election Day.”
The two parties are closer to parity in North Carolina than registration numbers would suggest, according to the Agenda 2004 poll. While 52 percent of respondents in the sample reported their affiliation as Democrat, vs. 35 percent Republican and 13 percent neither, a different question asked about respondents’ typical voting behavior. Approximately 35 percent said they always or more often than not voted Democrat, while 31 percent said they always or usually voted Republican and 34 percent identified themselves as split-ticket voters (23 percent) or were unsure (11 percent).
Split-ticket voters, not surprisingly, seem to be acting as the swing voters in the JLF poll’s results on major political contests in North Carolina. They narrowly favored Burr over Bowles in the Senate race and strongly favored Bush for president and Easley for governor.
The Agenda 2004 poll of 600 likely voters was conducted October 18-20 by the Virginia-based survey firm Tel Opinion Research. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points; the margin is larger for subgroups such as party members, races, or geographical regions. Percentages for each question may not add up to 100 percent due to rounding.
For more information about the Agenda 2004 poll of likely North Carolina voters, please call JLF President John Hood at 919-828-3876 or email [email protected]