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North Carolinians split on openly gay Senate run
Jim Neal bruised, not beaten by new poll numbers

by Matt Comer . Q-Notes staff
RALEIGH — The John W. Pope Civitas Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank and policy analysis organization, has released poll numbers on North Carolinians’ views of the 2008 general elections. The Institute purports that North Carolinians would be less likely to vote for an openly gay candidate for U.S. Senate.

The poll question regarding openly gay Jim Neal’s Senate candidacy read, “Would you be more or less likely to vote for a United States Senate candidate who was openly gay.”

Five percent of the respondents said they would be much more likely and two percent said they would be somewhat more likely to vote for an openly gay candidate. Five percent said they would be somewhat less likely to vote for an openly gay candidate. The largest portion of respondents (42 percent and 37 percent, respectively) said they would be much less likely to vote for an openly gay candidate or that the candidate’s sexual orientation made no difference in how they would vote.

Jim Neal faces a tough, although not impossible, climb to become the first openly gay senator in U.S. history.
Added together, 44 percent of respondents said an openly gay candidate would make them more likely to vote for that person or that there would be no difference in their voting. Forty-seven percent would be more likely to vote against an openly gay candidate. The poll’s margin of error was plus-or-minus 3.7 percentage points.

In another poll question, participants were asked which candidate they would vote for if the election were held today. When Neal challenger Kay Hagan was matched up with incumbent Sen. Elizabeth Dole, 29 percent of respondents said they would vote for Hagan. When Neal was matched up with the Republican senator, those voting Democratic dropped by only two percent.

The day before releasing the poll results, the Institute issued a press release with the title, “Poll Finds Voters Would Not Support Openly Gay Candidate.” However, the poll results may show little challenge for Neal aside from being — like Hagan — a widely unknown candidate in a highly contested statewide race.

Civitas Institute President Jack Hawke admitted the poll numbers do not necessarily reflect an impossibility for an openly gay candidate.

“An openly gay candidate does not face an impossible scenario in North Carolina, but certainly a very difficult one,” said Hawke. “A few other candidates have been able to overcome strongly negative polling to win. Sen. Hillary Clinton has overcome very negative personal polling numbers to become the leading Democratic candidate for president. Here in North Carolina former Sen. Jesse Helms was elected five times with strong negative opinion in each of his elections.”

Dr. David Holian, an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, echoed Hawke’s remarks, although with some encouraging thoughts.

“There are all kinds of examples of openly gay politicians holding elected office, although the hill is probably a tougher one to climb here in North Carolina,” Holian told Q-Notes. “North Carolina is in some ways one of the least ‘Southern’ states, so I think there would be potential here more quickly than in states like Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi or Alabama.

“The fact is that any Democrat is going to have a difficult time against Dole and given the make up of the North Carolina electorate, Neal is going to have a more difficult time than Hagan at this point.”

Holian added, “Given that opinions on matters of sexual orientation are so related to age, the good news is that the trends seem to suggest this will become less and less of an issue as the older voters age out and younger voters gain more importance in the political realm.”

Regarding the specific poll question on sexual orientation and voters’ likelihood of electing an openly gay candidate, Holian said there is some significance to Neal and his candidacy.

“Those particular poll results are significant in the sense that when you add up the options you are getting an almost even split between people who don’t care or who would vote for him and people who would be less likely to vote for him,” Holian said. “The problem with adding up respondents’ answers is a level of intensity. A plurality of people said they would be much less likely to vote for an openly gay candidate.

“I think it is safe to read this poll as a matter of intensity, however, if it is the case that most of the people expressing that opinion are Republican, then the effect of that on Neal’s candidacy is lessened, because those people wouldn’t vote for him anymore than they’d vote for Hagan.”
Holian added, “It would be nice to see that question broken up by party identification.”
The professor, whose expertise lies in public opinion, said that name recognition certainly plays an important role in the upcoming election.

“Dole obviously has higher name recognition, even as a first-time Senate candidate six years ago,” he said. “We would expect the gap between Dole and a Democrat to narrow once a Democratic candidate becomes more well known.”

Holian said that Dole’s lowered poll numbers may be a sign of trouble for the 71-year-old Salisbury native.

“It is always a danger sign for an incumbent, regardless of her lead, to be polling under 50 percent against candidates who are not as well known. This race could narrow substantially as more people become aware of her opponents.”

The majority of the poll’s questions asked respondents about their thoughts on the presidential campaigns, although the Institute’s pre-release press statements focused entirely on Neal’s candidacy and how questions of sexual orientation may play into voters’ actions.

In other poll results, the majority of participants said they believe former Democratic Sen. John Edwards best understands the needs and problems of people in North Carolina. Out of all Democrats, respondents said Sen. Hillary Clinton had the best chance of winning the general election. Respondents chose former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani as the Republican candidate with the best chance of winning.

Half of the poll participants said social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage are not important enough to vote against a presidential candidate who did not share their views on these issues.

Those registered as Democrats made up 48 percent of poll participants, while 37 percent represented Republicans and 15 percent represented other parties.

The poll results regarding Jim Neal and questions regarding an openly gay candidate could have been influenced by more than the 60 percent of participants who were 55 years of age and older.

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