What Might Mitt Run Into In North Carolina?

Michael Bitzer

So it looks like the late North Carolina May 8th Primary will be a deciding contest in the GOP’s presidential candidates’ rocky road to Tampa’s nomination.

Some early polling of the state seems to show that, once again, Romney may have problems in Dixie.  Public Policy Polling shows that if the GOP three-way race continues into North Carolina between Romney, Santorum and Gingrich, Romney should eke out a win with 31 percent to Santorum’s 27 percent. 

But if Newt should drop out between now and May 8th, then Santorum benefits from a two-man Tar Heel contest, winning 42 percent to Romney’s 38 percent. But, as many political prognosticators will say, it all depends ultimately on “who shows up.”

What might we expect in terms of the composition in a GOP primary electorate?  If past Southern primary contests are any indicator, a much more conservative electorate should show up in May than what we typically see in a November general election.  But looking at the 2008 exit poll composition of GOP and independent (read, unaffiliated) voters might give us a clue. 

Why combine both the GOP and independent voters for the analysis?  North Carolina’s May primary election is a semi-closed election, meaning that only registered members of the party, plus those who are registered “unaffiliated,” may vote in a party’s primary; therefore, only registered Republican and registered unaffiliated voters can cast a ballot in the GOP presidential primary contest.

One other important point before we see the numbers: independent voters in 2008 cast 53 percent of their votes for McCain versus 45 percent for Obama, and if I had to guess, it’s likely that only those McCain independents would participate in a primary. 

So, to give some comparison among different groups, I’m going to present four sets of numbers:

  • Self-identified Republicans
  • Self-identified Independents
  • Self-identified Republicans & Independents who voted for McCain
  • Finally, all Self-identified Republicans and Independents combined

When looking at these four groups, some distinct characteristics emerge among them.  For example, when looking at each group’s ideological composition—liberal, moderate, or conservative—we find what we would expect:

 

 

2008 Exit Poll Responses in North Carolina based on Liberal, Moderate and Conservative Ideology

North Carolinians who identified as a Republican in 2008 were overwhelmingly conservative (69 percent), in comparison to independent voters, a majority (55 percent) who said they were moderate. 

If the 2012 GOP primary electorate is made up of just Republicans and independents who voted for McCain, then it would be a much more conservative electorate (65 percent) than if all independents and Republicans participated (54 percent conservative). 

When looking at 2008’s voting patterns, it is not surprising that North Carolinians who identify with the GOP voted for McCain; by the national exit polls, 90 percent of self-identified Republicans voted for their party’s candidate, and in North Carolina, 93 percent of self-identified Republicans voted for McCain. 

Among North Carolina independents, McCain got a closer 53 percent of the vote, but add independents and Republicans together, over three-fourths of the combined group voted for McCain. 

 

2008 Exit Poll Responses in North Carolina based on Obama vs. McCain voting

One voting bloc that Romney has truly struggled with in the South are white evangelical/born-again voters.  As a core constituency of the GOP, evangelical voters are important players, even here in more moderate North Carolina.

 

2008 Exit Poll Responses in North Carolina based on White Evangelical/Born-Again or Not

In 2008, nearly three-quarters of white North Carolina Republicans identified themselves as evangelical/born-again Christians, in comparison to 57 percent of N.C. independent voters. 

When you combine GOP voters and independents who voted for McCain, it resembles the pure GOP group, with 71 percent identifying as evangelical; combining all GOP and independent voters, over two-thirds of them identify as evangelical.

There was an interesting question on the 2008 North Carolina exit poll that asked “Do you think Barack Obama’s positions on the issues are: too liberal, too conservative, or just about right.”   Breaking down these responses, one shouldn’t be surprised when three-quarters of North Carolina Republicans say Obama was too liberal, while a plurality—49 percent—of North Carolina independents say that Obama’s positions were just about right.

2008 Exit Poll Responses in North Carolina based Obama’s Ideology

Finally, one of the most interesting aspects gleaned from the GOP presidential primary contests is the split in Romney’s support between urban and rural voters.  For example, in Ohio, Romney won the counties that Obama carried in 2008—urban counties—while Santorum won the counties that McCain carried—rural. 

For North Carolina Republicans, rural voters tend to be a large portion of the party’s base: 52 percent come from rural areas, while independents tend to be more urban and suburban (57 percent total).

2008 Exit Poll Responses in North Carolina based on Rural, Suburban and Urban Voters

What these pieces of information tell me is that if the GOP presidential contest comes to the Tar Heel State in May, Romney may be facing another key test of whether he can win in Dixie, and especially among his own party’s core base. 

While the 2008 exit polls may not give us the full picture for May, it is a pretty safe bet that this portrait of the state’s Republican base—made up of significantly conservative, overwhelmingly white Evangelical voters in rural areas—underestimates the representation and influence of these core groups, and may present yet another challenge to Romney’s march to the nomination. 

Will North Carolina repeat its claim to fame in the primary season by deciding the eventual nominee, like it did for the Democrats in 2008?  It’s still too early to tell, but what Romney may find, as he has in other Southern states, is that North Carolinians may lack the warm hospitality the region is known for.

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