NC residents feeling positive about the economy, but with divides along political lines, WRAL News poll shows

North Carolina supporters of Joe Biden report feeling mostly optimistic about their family's financial future, while supporters of Donald Trump report feeling largely pessimistic.
Posted 2024-03-14T21:07:48+00:00 - Updated 2024-03-16T21:33:07+00:00

North Carolinians are more likely to feel positive about their families’ future finances, according to a new WRAL News poll — a finding that could have significant implications for the 2024 presidential election.

One in five people polled said they weren’t sure about their household economic outlook a year from now. But 46% said they’re feeling optimistic, compared with 33% who said they’re feeling pessimistic.

That’s more optimistic than respondents were in 2022, when 38% were optimistic and 46% were pessimistic.

The WRAL poll of 850 North Carolinians, conducted in partnership with SurveyUSA between March 3 and March 9, has a credibility interval of 4.1 percentage points. A credibility interval is similar to margin of error but takes into account more factors and is considered by some pollsters to be a more accurate measurement of statistical certainty.

Michael Walden, an economist at N.C. State University, says low unemployment rates and subsiding fears of recession are likely contributing to increased optimism. There are “a lot of things going for the economy,” he said. “And it makes sense that people have seen these improvements, and that the polling shows more optimism now than it did previously.”

North Carolina’s elections in November could come down to how the national economy performs in the next several months, political observers have said.

In a previous poll, released Wednesday, voters identified the economy as their No. 1 issue heading into the elections — when Democratic President Joe Biden and former Republican President Donald Trump are expected to face off for the second straight time.

“If the economic numbers keep on getting better for Biden, that makes him more competitive in North Carolina,” said Mac McCorkle, a longtime Democratic strategist who now teaches at Duke University. “Clearly, if they stagnate, he's got a real issue. So I think that one is really the biggest possibility we’ve got to watch for.”

‘Fly in the ointment’

Presidents and other politicians have only limited control over the economy, a hallmark of capitalism — but voters of both parties tend to associate the economy with political leaders regardless. And when things go well, politicians do enjoy taking credit: North Carolina has been ranked the best state in the nation for business the last two years in a row by CNBC, an accolade the state’s top Democratic and Republican leaders have both claimed credit for.

Despite strong unemployment figures and reduced fears of a recession, “there is one fly in the ointment, and that is inflation,” Walden said.

Nationally, with inflation up significantly in the last several years, Biden has seen his approval ratings tank as Republican politicians — and many voters — blame him for the rising cost of groceries, gas and other items, and the diminished purchasing power resulting from high inflation.

Heading into a rematch with Trump, the economy is expected to be the top issue by national political observers — and by North Carolina voters, the new polling shows.

And while the Biden administration is expected to highlight job growth and low unemployment rates, voters are expected to assess a variety of other indicators — including the stock market and gross domestic product — in determining their economic outlook.

Some of those factors are doing well under Biden. The stock market has hit record highs — including as recently as Tuesday. Monthly job growth has often exceeded what experts predicted, and the unemployment rate hit a record low in 2022. But at the same time, food prices are up 20% on average. And while wages have risen, so have costs for gas, health care, insurance and more.

“When people go to the store and they see what prices were now compared to what they were in 2021 or 2019, they get upset — even though economists like me will say, ‘Hey, look, they're not going to go back to 2020, 2021 or 2019,’” Walden said. “The point is: can your wages keep up with those higher prices? For a lot of people, that's not the case.”

Voters often focus on their personal pocketbook issues, such as inflation and wages, more than they do broader measures of economic health, like GDP or the stock market, said Western Carolina University political scientist Chris Cooper. That could explain Biden’s poor approval numbers even as the economy has grown substantially since the Covid-19 pandemic, during his time in office.

“The rhetoric has separated gas prices or grocery prices from ‘the economy’ [at large],” Cooper said. “I think there’s a sense that perhaps the economy, as this sort of third thing, is growing. But what people are noticing at the pump, or what they’re noticing when they go to grocery stores, they’re holding as separate things in their head.”

Partisan divide

Despite the overall optimism in the latest WRAL poll, the results showed a clear partisan divide: Democrats are mostly optimistic, Republicans mostly pessimistic.

The divide became even more stark when sorted by people’s preference in the presidential election: 63% of Biden supporters reported feeling optimistic about their family’s financial future, nearly twice the 36% share of Trump supporters who said the same. Likewise, 46% of Trump supporters said they felt pessimistic, compared to just 19% of Biden supporters.

What’s less clear is whether people’s self-reported economic concerns are driving their political beliefs, or vice versa. Nationally, pollsters have identified a trend of voters saying one thing about their economic outlook but acting another way, with The Wall Street Journal reporting that polls on the economy appear to be driven more by people’s political opinions rather than their own economic realities.

Biden’s handling of the economy could be viewed more favorably if the Federal Reserve decides to lower interest rates from a 22-year high after increasing them to combat high inflation. Until then, he may have to adjust his messaging to combat Republican attacks, Walden said.