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NC politics and Shakespeare

John Hood John Locke Foundation

February 19, 2014

“I am hurt,” says the dying Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet after trying to stand up for his friend Romeo and getting stabbed for it. “A plague o’ both your houses!” In popular remembrance, we actually invest the Bard’s line with even more poetic force by substituting a different word when wishing ill on both sides of a dispute: “A pox on both your houses!”


Right now, “a pox on both your houses” — but perhaps without the exclamation point for emphasis — pretty much sums up the way many North Carolinians feel about their elected officeholders, according to an average of results from the last six publicly available polls (two conducted by Public Policy Polling in January and February plus January polls by the Civitas Institute, High Point University, Harper Research, and Rasmussen Reports).


With one exception, most NC voters don’t dislike or disapprove of their politicians. But they don’t much like or approve of them, either. That one exception is President Barack Obama, whom everyone recognizes and about whom nearly everyone has an opinion. According to the poll average, 51 percent of North Carolinians disapprove of the job Obama is doing as president, with an average of 43 percent approving of his performance.


Gov. Pat McCrory has the same approval rating as Obama, 43 percent, but lower average disapproval rating, also 43 percent. In other words, there’s an average of about 14 percent of North Carolinians who lack a firm opinion about the governor’s job performance, compared to just six percent who are undecided or ambivalent about Obama’s performance.


Even more North Carolinians don’t yet know what to think of Sen. Kay Hagan’s performance. Her job-approval average is 37 percent and her disapproval average is 47 percent. If the 2014 election were held today, Hagan would almost certainly lose. Fortunately for her, Election Day remains a long way off.


What about the North Carolina General Assembly? As an institution, it’s none too popular, with an average of 25 percent approval. However, that question doesn’t differentiate legislators by party. Both Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning voters could disapprove of the legislature as a whole, and yet for diametrically opposed reasons. PPP’s January survey asked voters separate questions about whether they had favorable or unfavorable views of legislative Republicans and of legislative Democrats. The differences weren’t significant: 35 percent favorable/49 percent unfavorable for the Republicans and 34 percent favorable/47 percent unfavorable for the Democrats.


PPP and Civitas also asked a generic-ballot question for the 2014 legislative races. The two surveys yielded the same, not-exactly-mesmerizing result: a tie. If that’s what the polling looks like in October on the legislative races, there won’t be much shift in the partisan composition of the North Carolina House and Senate — regardless of how many millions of dollars, reams of paper, and hours of airtime are consumed in the attempt.


I am certainly in no position to predict that North Carolina voters will feel the same in November that they do now. There is always the potential for state, national, or international events to change public priorities and perceptions. Still, what lessons might each partisan coalition draw from these early survey numbers for the 2014 cycle? Let’s consult our Shakespeare, again.


North Carolina Republicans would benefit from following the lead of Polonius, who in Hamlet tells Laertes to “give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.” They should see the ratio of two ears to one mouth as guidance for how to conduct themselves in office. As for North Carolina Democrats, they would benefit from listening to the counsel of the Duke of Norfolk in Henry VIII, who warns, “Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot that it do singe yourself.” Blind fury is insufficient as a message for recovering and wielding political power.


In other words, both sides could do with a bit more sober reflection and mature behavior. Or as the Bard put it in Henry V, invoking an earlier proverb: “The empty vessel makes the loudest sound.”