Biden blues could carry down the ballot for Democrats in NC’s biggest races | Analysis


Democrats across the country are fretting about President Joe Biden’s chances in November after a dismal debate performance and subsequent interviews and media reports invited questions about his health and mental acuity.

Could that have an impact on candidates down the ballot, particularly in a swing state like North Carolina?

The short answer is yes. The main driver of voter turnout in presidential elections is the race at the top of the ticket, experts say — so if there’s not much enthusiasm for the Democratic nominee, some people might not show up at all. That matters in North Carolina, where statewide elections tend to be close, and even a slight drop in turnout could affect the outcome.

In North Carolina’s gubernatorial election, most polls have shown Attorney General Josh Stein running a few points ahead of Biden, typically slightly ahead of or locked in a tie with Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. The race between Stein and Robinson is one of the most closely watched — and important — gubernatorial contests in the country.

But a drop in support for Biden wouldn’t increase the margin between Stein and Biden, David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College who directs the Meredith Poll, said. Expected Democratic votes for Biden are also expected Democratic votes for Stein, so if those voters stay home, it would hurt them both.

“If Biden sinks, then I think he brings all the other candidates down with him,” McLennan said. “If Biden enthusiasm goes down, that could mean that turnout among Democratic and Democratic leaning voters could be depressed, and that hurts down-ballot races, not just Biden.”

Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University political science professor, agreed that the Biden drama could create a mobilization problem for all Democrats, not just Stein.

“It’s going to matter,” Cooper said. “We know that turnout drives from the top of the ticket, and if some Democrats are more likely to stay home, that’s going to be bad for Josh Stein. It’s bad for Jeff Jackson … It’ll be bad down the line for Democrats.”

The race for attorney general, between Jackson and Republican Dan Bishop, is also likely to be close. Democrats in other statewide races, such as Council of State and judicial races, could be affected as well.

Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College, noted that there is a very small percentage of persuadable voters, so most elections are won by whichever party can get more of their own voters to show up.

“This year, both sides need their bases energized to show up in November, and anything that potentially creates a question of confidence at the top of the ticket may have some down-ballot effects,” Bitzer said.

That question of confidence is becoming more apparent. While it takes time for polling to fully reflect recent events, recent surveys indicate growing hesitation about Biden’s candidacy, even among Democrats. A large swath of Democratic voters believe another Democrat should take Biden’s place, and voters across all demographics perceive Biden as too old to be president and believe he should not be running again.

The trick for down-ballot Democrats like Stein is to differentiate themselves from Biden, in hopes of capturing some moderate or conservative-leaning voters who feel comfortable splitting their ticket, Bitzer said. North Carolina has nominated a Republican president and Democratic governor in the same year before, including in 2016 and 2020, when the state voted for both Donald Trump and Gov. Roy Cooper. Stein won statewide races for attorney general in both of those years, albeit by less than 1 percentage point. But with such tight margins, split-ticket voting may not be enough to offset the issues Biden may bring to the ballot.

“It doesn’t take a lot of votes in North Carolina to make a difference, and so if 1,000 people statewide stay home that wouldn’t have otherwise, that could be enough, right?” Cooper said.

Of course, a lot about this situation is unprecedented, and the election is still four months away. By the time November rolls around, voters’ concerns about Biden may not be as potent, or there may be a wave of anti-Trump sentiment strong enough to motivate them to vote for Biden anyway. It’s possible, too, that Biden will no longer be the Democratic nominee come November, replaced with another candidate who can better mobilize the party’s base.

One thing experts agree on, though: Anything could happen.



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