A new president has been elected, but a divided nation rages on

‘It’s a totally divided electorate, and the why isn’t simple.’

BY D. LARS DOLDER, News + Record Staff
Posted 11/11/20

Chatham County, uniquely nestled between North Carolina’s Democrat-dominant Triangle and Republican-heavy western rural areas, is a telling microcosm of political strife and value-based …

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A new president has been elected, but a divided nation rages on

‘It’s a totally divided electorate, and the why isn’t simple.’

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Chatham County, uniquely nestled between North Carolina’s Democrat-dominant Triangle and Republican-heavy western rural areas, is a telling microcosm of political strife and value-based disagreement that represents a larger political divide which is casting the nation into turmoil.

Just north of Chatham, Durham County was by far new president-elect Joe Biden’s strongest N.C. supporter in this year’s election. It voted 81% for the former vice president in his race against Donald Trump.

In contrast, Randolph County, immediately west of Chatham, went 78% for Trump.

Chatham’s voting pattern in the presidential election, almost evenly divided between candidates, demonstrates its residents’ political discontinuity.

But numbers tell only a fraction of the story. Comparing this year’s election with 2016’s would seem to indicate little change in voter perspective.

Four years ago, Chatham County voted 53% for Hillary Clinton and 43% for Donald Trump, who ended up winning North Carolina and the presidency. This year, it voted 55% for Biden and 44% for Trump. A strict comparison of figures would indicate no aberration over time — the county still breaks almost down the middle, with Democrats taking a slight upper hand.

In fact, national voting figures depict a similar election. Biden eked out the win, but not decidedly — not like the polls predicted. Both campaigns, Biden’s and Trump’s, anticipated landslide victories. Pollsters sided with the former, but all parties were wrong.

The problem lay in an antiquated system of political evaluation, one which continues to undersell the widening political divide overtaking this country. Yes, the numbers breakdown looks much like it always has. But figures misrepresent the deepening allegiance to contrasting values of national consequence, and the chasm developing between two versions of the American people.

Pollsters and political scientists measure and predict opinions and behavior based on a bygone interpretation of the political scene. Their system is breaking as American politics shifts.

“If pollsters are still measuring issues the way they always have, they’ll miss things,” said Chatham’s Dr. Ronald H. Hinckley, a retired pollster. “It’s a totally divided electorate, and the why isn’t simple.”

Hinckley knows a thing or two about politics and its evaluation. His celebrated career as a political scientist and adviser took him around the world before he finally settled in Chatham County. Among a long list of career accomplishments, Hinckley was a White House pollster for Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George H. W. Bush, eventually serving as director of the office of research for the United States Information Agency where he advised the U.S. executive branch on international public opinion.

“Pollsters all have algorithms that translate what people say into an action,” Hinckley said. “They have different variables.”

In the past, simple variables were reliable metrics to predict voter trends and propensities. For example, income, education and proximity to major cities have all been used to predict voter behavior. But they are failing now with enough regularity to render much polling data unreliable.

“They got it wrong in 2016 in a very big way,” said Mike Rusher, a former Republican campaign adviser who is now the vice president of The Results Company, a public affairs agency in Raleigh. “It was kind of all eyes on 2020 to see if they actually fixed their errors of the last cycle. And the answer to that is no, obviously.”

As Hinckley identifies it, classical metrics fail to quantify ideological values, and those values figured more heavily into this year’s presidential election than any before. They mattered more to many voters than policy.

“You elect a senator for what he does in your state,” Hinckley said, “congressmen for what they do in your district. But president? You elect a president based on your values.”

Hinckley’s evaluation explains how the country could elect a Democrat as president, while many of the same voters supported Republicans for state and local offices. It’s how N.C. could elect to keep Gov. Roy Cooper at the helm, but also vote for Trump as president.

“Yeah, President Trump is going to win the state of North Carolina,” Rusher said, “but he was not the top vote-getter here. He actually was not even in the top five, which tells me his coattails were not what people thought they would be.”

The number one vote-getter in N.C. was, in fact, Cooper.

“I really think what carried the day for Cooper,” Rusher said, “was that for the last eight months, he’s been on TV once a week telling the state that he’s trying to keep them safe. And yeah, you have a large number of people who were and still are tired of the restrictions … But at the end of the day, they saw a governor that they thought was doing the best he could to keep the state safe.”

The apparent dissonance in vote tallies represents a conundrum in how voters interpret candidates. Policy preference is not the end-all. Where a candidate stands on fundamental issues of human rights matters more.

Of course, voter opinion of candidates’ beliefs and values have always figured into politics. But President Trump’s behavior in his nearly four years in office, coupled with a global pandemic unlike anything the world had seen in over 100 years, amplified and distorted value-based decision making in a way that changed the scope of this political season, and maybe future election cycles.

“The game, I think, changed in 2020,” Rusher said.

Shifting values

“Political parties should be affiliated with certain values,” said Randy Voller, former N.C. Democratic party chairman who also served as mayor of Pittsboro, “and then your policies are derived from the values, right?”

During Trump’s presidency, though, the parties have become synonymous with new and controversial values that overreach politics, and many members of each can no longer oblige the shifting tides.

“That probably explains why Cooper managed to win the state,” Voller said. “He has a certain group of values that get him Democrats and even some Republicans.”

On the other hand, some voters strongly identify with Trump’s attitude and ideals.

“To be crude,” Hinckley said, “there’s 50% of us that like what Trump says — because of his machismo, his bravado — even if it’s lies.”

Trump’s response to the coronavirus illustrates that fact, according the Hinckley. Often science has said one thing and Trump another. Despite the facts, his supporters doggedly promote untruths because they come from him, and they fervently believe it to be true.

“Really, if you have a belief,” Hinckley said, “it is as true to you as fact.”

The coronavirus pandemic is not the only demonstration of such behavior. Holding beliefs above evidence is typical human nature.

“For example, look at anti-vaxxers,” Hinckley said. “Anti-vaxxers are not necessarily anti-science. They agree with and benefit from science in other ways. But in that one thing, their values just conflict.”

Race has also distanced parts of the electorate from their opposition, and it has bucked the norm according to traditional polling standards.

“The other thing within the vote pattern is racism,” Hinckley said. “It’s hard to detect because no one wants to admit they carry racism.”

In recent months, race relations have soared to the forefront of news coverage around the country as protests continue to erupt nationwide in the wake of George Floyd’s wrongful death at policemen’s hands in Minneapolis.

“Ninety-four percent of those were peaceful,” Hinckley said. “Six percent had violence. Out of 10,000 protests across the country, 60 had shooting incidents.”

In other words, many reports of protester violence exaggerated the relative frequency of incidents compared to the majority peaceful events that define much of the movement.

“And,” Hinckley said, “two-thirds of those shooting incidents were targeting BLM. But who gets blamed for it?”

The question was rhetorical.

“I think all that plays on people,” Hinckley said, “I only understand it because I worked in it for years.”

Is amelioration possible?

The deepening polarization of political ideology which has come to define this country and this state — and which Chatham County uniquely typifies — is what News & Observer reporter Andrew Carter recently described as “the two versions of North Carolina.”

“It is a divide built upon myriad socioeconomic factors, some easily quantifiable and some not,” he wrote. “Poverty rates and education levels and population changes tell part of the story. The success or failure of local economies tells another. And yet it is more difficult to put numbers to the cultural differences and conflicting worldviews that define the two North Carolinas.”

President Trump may be leaving office, but his term has awakened two movements that transcend politics: his detractors call for nationwide reform and his supporters entrench themselves in the country’s historical ideals.

Carter offered little hope of reconciliation. But Rusher is more optimistic.

“I don’t think we’ll have lasting political damages,” he said of strife that has become characteristic of this election season. “We have a good track record as a state of pulling together, and in times when it matters. I think we largely did that this cycle when it counted. And I think we’ll do it again.”

How we get there, however, remains unknown.

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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