Several national outlets have drawn attention to the latest Public Policy Polling survey of North Carolina voters, which links a steep decline in Governor Pat McCrory’s approval ratings to the impending passage of a pro-life bill through the state legislature. PPP announced the results in a July 16 press release:
For the first time in a PPP poll, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory has a net-negative approval rating, seeing a 15-point net decline in just the last month, and 22 points over the last three. Now only 40% of voters approve of the Republican’s job performance, and 49% disapprove. By comparison, McCrory’s approval margins over the last few months were +6, +10, +13, +14.
This decline in public esteem is a result of the policies proposed by the General Assembly, which itself is in even worse shape than the governor. . . . The abortion bill passed by the General Assembly last week, which McCrory promised to sign, is supported by only 34% of voters, with 47% opposing it. By a similar 48-33 margin, voters would prefer that McCrory actually veto the bill than sign it into law. 51% of independents, 64% of Democrats, and even 25% of Republicans want a veto.
The media generally picked up on this theme: ”Pat McCrory Approval Ratings Tumble After Abortion Bill: Poll” was the title of Luke Johnson’s piece at the Huffington Post; Hadas Gold’s story at Politico announced, “North Carolina Abortion Bill Hurts Gov. Pat McCrory, Poll Finds.”
But the idea of a connection between McCrory’s approval rating and the abortion bill is worth examining further. The April 5–9 edition of the Elon Poll (produced periodically during the school year by North Carolina’s Elon University) found that 42 percent of North Carolinians supported making access to abortion more difficult, while 38 percent opposed additional restrictions. At first glance, the PPP findings seem to more than reverse those numbers, with 47 percent opposing the new abortion restrictions and just 34 percent in favor.
I spoke with Prof. Andy Taylor, who chairs the Department of Political Science at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He explained that the process of the bill may have influenced many responses to the poll:
One of the things that immediately struck me is that, you know, people have strong views on abortion issues, people have fairly strong views on public policy in the state; but I think there is some fluidity . . . on who can be won over by the way they conceive of the process, whether they think’s legitimate or fair, or if it’s not. . . . And one of the things that may be hurting the Republicans on this issue . . . is the fact that there’s a feeling that it was done very quickly, without consultation, that it wasn’t a deliberative process, that it was kind of snuck in in the dead of night. There is a sense that it wasn’t a real standalone piece of legislation, that it was surreptitiously done.
Taylor was referring to the fact that the bill began as a motorcycle-safety law, onto which Republicans tacked the abortion language after the governor warned that he would veto a previous effort. McCrory promised during a televised debate last year that, if elected, he would not sign any new abortion restrictions into law. “My sense is that Republican supporters knew that it was going to be controversial,” Taylor told me, “and they might have even had a sense that there might be a number of people in the conference, and the governor as well . . . who would turn out to be a bit uncomfortable with that.” In other words, the bill may be hurting Republicans not because North Carolinians are less pro-life than they were in April, but because legislators engaged in needlessly sneaky tactics to bring it to the floor, and the governor contravened an unnecessary promise to the public (McCrory was favored to win last year’s election in any case).
In a similar vein, poll respondents were likely influenced by the tide of negative coverage engulfing state GOP leaders in recent weeks. While most of North Carolina is rural and fairly conservative, the state’s political and intellectual class is disproportionately concentrated around the capital city of Raleigh and the solidly liberal counties of Wake, Durham, and Orange (respectively home to NC State, Duke, and UNC-Chapel Hill, which demarcate the state’s affluent Research Triangle region). For the first all-GOP government since Reconstruction, the upshot has been predictable: a steady stream of local residents (many of whom are northern transplants) gathering in Raleigh for the “Moral Monday” protests, and a steady stream of sympathetic reports on said protests from capital-area media.
Francis De Luca of the Civitas Institute, a conservative Raleigh think tank, told me that “the Triangle has been saturated with coverage of these protests; it’s pretty much wall-to-wall coverage.” He suggested that the two keys to the PPP result are “how badly McCrory is doing with blacks, and how badly he is doing in the Triangle.” The Moral Mondays are being led by William Barber, the chest-thumping leader of the North Carolina NAACP; De Luca said that many black North Carolinians are taking Barbour’s high-profile opposition to the governor’s agenda “as a signal that [the governor's] somehow doing this to blacks.” He thus predicts that the governor’s drop in approval will prove temporary: “Over time, once those protests kind of go off the front page of the news, and once they start talking about tax reform and other legislative initiatives, then you’ll see his numbers rebound.”
Last but not least, De Luca raised a methodological point, noting that PPP polls are conducted strictly via Interactive Voice Response (i.e., robocalls): “They’re not catching cell [phone] voters. And guess what cell voters do? They’re not watching TV, and they don’t read newspapers. So we don’t know what they’re thinking on these issues.”
The bill, by the way, has five major provisions, according to National Right to Life News: