For years, both national and state political observers have noted a steady trend of the Republican base growing more and more reactionary. Both the Trump era, as well as COVID, seem to have radicalized a segment of voters who were already reliably conservative and pushed them into more extreme positions. This has been documented in the widespread embrace of conspiracy myths by the Republican base and in the greatly disproportionate impact of COVID on Republican voters’ political outlook.
The October edition of the Carolina Forward Poll explored this trend a bit further. We find that on multiple issues, the hardcore Republican base is remarkably (and increasingly) out of step with mainstream opinion among North Carolina voters.
One example is on same-sex marriage. Openness to same-sex marriage has become a consensus issue among most voters, with a full 50% of indicating they would oppose allowing U.S. states to ban it. Yet nearly two-thirds of Republican voters in North Carolina say they would support allowing U.S. states to ban same-sex marriage, more than double that of most:
Urban and suburban voters are strongly aligned on this issue, with Democrats and Independents more or less also in agreement. But what comes through is the stark split with rural voters, among whom support for allowing states to ban same-sex marriage exceeds 50%.
The majority support for legal same-sex marriage is a remarkable shift in public opinion in the last decade, which reflects the broad national consensus on this issue. Only ten years ago, voters in North Carolina passed Amendment One, a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, by a margin of 22 points. (The amendment was short-lived, and found unconstitutional in 2014.) Yet today, opposition to same-sex marriage is a small minority opinion held only by a right-wing base still gripped by rampant fear of gays and lesbians.
Another example is public education. While we find strong support for public education across nearly all voter groups, fewer than half of Republican voters now say they support it, with a quarter saying they would support ending it entirely:
Once again, we see the tight alignment between Republicans and conservative rural voters. This helps explain Republicans' steadfast opposition to increasing investment in public schools through initiatives like the Leandro Plan, even though such a program of investment would directly (and disproportionately) benefit rural schools.
There is one area, however, where we find that voters are in broad agreement: their expectations for Republican legislation under a hypothetical supermajority. Supermajorities of all voters, across all segments, all expect Republican political leaders to ban or severely restrict abortion rights if they were to win a supermajority in the state legislature:
There has been a vocal effort among Republican state lawmakers recently to deny any plans to ban abortion - but this polling suggests that voters aren't buying it. Republican politicians have spent most of the last several decades threatening just such a ban, after all, so it's little wonder that voters don't believe the backtracking now. More restrictions on abortion rights are very unpopular with North Carolina voters, and this juxtaposition has put Republicans in a difficult spot.
As the Republican base has grown more insular, self-referential and extreme, it is struggling to either enlarge its coalition or convert new voters. The challenge for Democrats is whether they are able to convert those left behind by the GOP's steady rightward drift. November's election may give us a clue.