A new poll of N.C. voters seems to offer a warning to state legislators and the new governor as they pursue policies they say will create more jobs: Don’t run roughshod over the environment while doing it.
Seventy percent of those polled said protecting the state’s environment is at least as important as economic development. Many of those voters – almost 40 percent — said Gov.-Elect Pat McCrory’s track record on protecting the environment will be very important when they again cast ballots for governor in 2016.
“The poll clearly indicates that many voters want the environment to be well managed,” said Todd Miller, executive director of the N.C. Coastal Federation. “Only 26 percent of people who voted for Pat McCrory in the last election said that the governor’s future track record on protecting the environment would not be important to them.”
The federation commissioned the telephone poll, which was conducted Dec. 11-12 by Public Policy Polling in Raleigh. It surveyed 500 voters who cast ballots in this year’s gubernatorial election, which McCrory, a Republican, won handily over Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, a Democrat.
More than two-thirds of those who voted for Dalton and more than half of the McCrory voters think environmental protection is equally as important as economic development. Almost 60 percent of Dalton voters said McCrory’s record over the next four years for protecting the environment will be very important when they decide who to vote for in 2016. Only a quarter of McCrory voters felt that way. Forty-four percent of those voters, however, said McCrory record will be “somewhat” important.
A desire to protect the environment seems to cross party lines. Seventy-seven percent of registered Democrats, 69 percent of independents and 61 percent of Republicans said environmental protection is at least as important as economic development
They differ, though, when asked how important McCrory’s environmental track record will be if he runs for re-election. More than half of the Democrats said that it will be a very important factor when deciding how to vote, while only 23 percent of Republicans felt that way. Less than half of the Republicans polled — 47 percent – said that McCrory’s record will be “somewhat” important to them. Independents fell somewhere in the middle. Thirty-eight percent will consider McCrory’s record very important, while 40 percent said it will be “somewhat” important.
Miller said the poll is a reminder that voters in N.C. want their political leaders to safeguard the environment. “We look forward to working with the new governor as he tackles environmental challenges and opportunities,” Miller said. “We will applaud his accomplishments, and work hard to draw attention to environmental management decisions that are good, bad and ugly.”
Gary Pearce and Carter Wrenn, two seasoned political strategists in North Carolina, caution about reading too much into the poll. Pearce, a Democrat, and Wrenn, a Republican, have directed 11 statewide campaigns for governor, senator and president. They share a blog about state politics.
Take that 38 percent of voters who say McCrory’s record on protecting the environment will be very important when they decide whether to vote for him in 2016. But how important will other issues be? Pearce asked.
“There are always five to 10 issues that drive how people vote,” he said. “Absent something really bad, it’s impossible to know where the environment will fall.”
Cynical political strategists, noted Wrenn, might advise McCrory to ignore that 38 percent. “They may say those are voters he’s not going to get anyway,” he said.
About an equal number of voters said McCrory’s environmental record will be “somewhat” important if he runs for re-election. Combine it with the 38 percent and an impressive three-quarter of those polled said they will consider McCrory’s environmental track record to some degree when deciding who to vote for in 2016. But neither Pearce nor Wrenn are buying it.
“’Somewhat’ is nebulous,” Pearce said. “What do people think it means?”
Wrenn thought he had the answer. “To most people it means I care about it a little bit, but not a lot,” he said.
Environmental protection itself as a political issue is one of interpretation, Wrenn said. How voters and politicians define it will likely change as the economy remains at the top of the list of concerns, he said. Voters, for instance, might be more inclined to live with cuts in regulations if more jobs are created as a result, Wrenn said.
“When it comes to economic development and environmental protection, people naturally say they want both, and they do,” he said. “If presented with a choice they might push for jobs now. But what’s necessary to protect the environment? That’s the line I’m talking about. The debate isn’t about whether to protect the environment but what’s necessary to protect it.”
Miller agreed with Pearce and Wrenn’s overall assessment. “We are under no illusion that the environment will sway a huge number of voters in the next election,” said Miller. “However, this poll indicates that some voters will pay attention to the governor’s environmental decision-making, and in a hotly contested election his track record could swing enough votes to make a difference in the race.”
Miller notes that N.C. is a very evenly divided state politically, and statewide races are generally much more closely contested than Congressional or state legislative district races. “In this past election, the 13 democratic candidates for U.S. House of Representatives received 81,190 more votes than their republican opponents, and yet they only won four seats, or 30 percent of these races. Obviously, there are no safe districts in a statewide race, and in a close statewide contest every vote counts.”