Sports analogies are overused in political analysis, I admit. But for some purposes, there’s no better description than the example of two teams squaring off in a ball game.
In North Carolina politics, as in most of the country, either a Democrat or a Republican will win virtually every electoral contest. But the two teams are best thought of as coalitions, not as ideologically pristine groups. Each partisan coalition contains members who may disagree on many particulars and yet have enough in common to work together.
Think of the Democrats and Republicans, then, as competing teams that pool together the varying talents, resources, and energies of players, coaches, support staff, and fans. At any one moment, a single person or faction may prove critical to the success of the team, but no single person or faction can sustain the team’s success over time.
I’ve long been an advocate of moving beyond binary terms to describe political actors. A new Elon University survey has done just that. Following the lead of Gallup at the national level, the Elon pollsters asked North Carolina voters not just to self-identify on partisan or ideological grounds but also to answer two broad questions about the proper role of government.
Here’s the first question. “Which statement comes closer to your own view: the government should promote traditional values in our society or the government should not favor any particular set of values?” In response, 51 percent of North Carolina voters picked the first option, the promotion of traditional values, while 40 percent opted for the second option and the remaining 9 percent chose a middle ground or declined to answer.
Here’s the second question. “Which statement comes closer to your own view: the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses or the government should do more to solve our country’s problems?” North Carolina voters were closely divided on this question, with 46 percent saying the government was doing too much, 44 percent saying it should do more, and 10 percent either choosing a middle ground or declining to answer.
Using the results of these two questions, Elon created a typology of North Carolina voters comprising four ideological groups — conservatives, liberals, populists, and libertarians — plus a fifth group of respondents who challenged or declined to answer one or both questions.
In such a typology, “conservatives” say that government is trying to do too much and that it should promote traditional values. They make up 26 percent of the electorate and are mostly Republican in registration or voting behavior. This is the only group that strongly approves (nearly 70 percent) of President Donald Trump’s job performance. The conservatives’ polar opposites are “liberals” who say that government should do more and that it shouldn’t promote any set of values. They make up 20 percent of North Carolina’s electorate and are heavily Democratic. More than 90 percent disapprove of Trump.
“Populists” represent 22 percent of the vote and combine support for more government with support for promoting traditional values. Nearly half are registered Democrats, but their loyalties are currently divided. For example, they are split on Trump’s performance. Their polar opposites, the “libertarians,” are 17 percent of voters. Nearly half are unaffiliated, with a third registered as Republicans and a quarter as Democrats. They mostly disapprove of Trump. This is not tested in the Elon poll, but my study of similar typologies suggests that libertarian voters, while often eschewing party labels, tend to vote more Republican than Democratic.
The remaining 16 percent of the electorate don’t fit into these four boxes. Like some populists and libertarians, many such voters are up for grabs from election to election.
Think of modern politics, then, as a process by which a largely conservative Republican core and an overwhelmingly liberal Democratic core compete to attract enough players, staff, and fans from the other groups to win. There are two teams, but many more factions. And there’s always another game coming up.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.