Raleigh, N.C. — Gov. Pat McCrory's campaign message that North Carolina's economy is experiencing a comeback may not be resonating with voters, according to an exclusive WRAL News poll.
McCrory, a Republican, is running to keep his seat against Democrat Roy Cooper, the state's attorney general, and Libertarian Lon Cecil.
When asked if the state's economy is stronger than it was four years ago when McCrory took office, only 25 percent said that it was, while 40 percent said the state's economy is weaker. On a separate question, more than two-thirds of voters said their own economic well-being is either the same or worse than it was four years ago.
"His economic message has just been overshadowed by events," said Marc Rotterman, a veteran Republican political consultant.
Rotterman points to the presidential campaign, in which Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump have both been frequent visitors to the state as well as strong presences in paid media.
As well, Rotterman said, the controversial House Bill 2 has also consumed a lot of time and attention both in newsprint and on television. House Bill 2 deals with issues of LGBT rights and the use of bathrooms by transgender individuals. The law has prompted many conferences and sporting events, such as the NCAA basketball tournament, to locate in other states and has drawn criticism from the business community.
Those withdrawals, despite not having broad economic impact, have made headlines across the state.
"The accomplishments of both the General Assembly and the governor in tandem have, unfortunately, not gotten through to a large segment of voters," Rotterman argued.
In fact, there are some good economic indicators for the governor to point to. The state's budget has a surplus, and the state's unemployment rate fell to 4.6 percent in August, the lowest it has been in a decade.
McCrory has sought to capitalize on that good economic news in campaign commercials that tout "results, not politics" and a "Carolina Comeback." But despite broader economic indicators, those ads may land with a thud on voters who are not seeing that recovery reflected in their lives or the lives of their neighbors.
McCrory's campaign declined to comment, saying they don't respond to "media polls."
The WRAL News poll shows Cooper running 4 percentage points ahead of McCrory, and Cooper's campaign said the economy is one reason why.
"Governor McCrory likes to brag about a 'Carolina Comeback,' but the reality is that hard-working families aren't feeling it," said Cooper campaign spokesman Ford Porter. "While the national economy has improved, North Carolina families are still worried about falling behind. These families are ready for a governor who will fight for them and focus on good jobs and schools."
Political scientists are more circumspect about the reasons voters may have told pollsters they are down on the economy.
"If you're a Democrat, you don't want to give Republicans any credit," said Steve Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University.
So, some voters, he said, may simply be responding based on partisan allegiance rather than economic indicators.
Still, Greene said, House Bill 2 has distracted from McCrory's economic message.
"This should be a pretty good set of conditions for a governor to be running on the economy," Greene said. "But nobody is talking about the economy."
Michael Bitzer, a political science professor and provost at Catawba College, agreed that McCrory was suffering due to a number of high-profile stories that detract from any sort of economic message. For example, the WRAL News poll found that more than half of registered voters who responded disapprove of how the state has handled the cleanup of coal ash pollution across the state. House Bill 2 itself also is deeply unpopular.
"Trying to make the argument that the state is better off economically when people don't perceive that, layered on top of HB2, coal ash and other issues, it has a compounding effect," Bitzer said.
Rotterman suggested that campaign messages by McCrory may not have the same impact as ads in years past.
"People have just tuned out," he said, adding that McCrory may be better advised to put his faith in low-tech door-to-door canvassing than in mass media.
Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic consultant, pointed to a recent Bloomberg poll that showed 58 percent of voters believe the state is on the wrong track. As with the economy numbers in the WRAL News poll, Pearce said, that figure calls into question whether it is wise for McCrory to be celebrating accomplishments in his own messaging.
"It certainly is no help to McCrory, and it makes no sense that he's switching his message to say things are great when only a quarter of voters believe things are great," Pearce said.