Lumen Scholar explores trends with North Carolina voters

Historically, North Carolina has voted Republican in presidential elections, but many political observers were surprised two years ago when President Barack Obama won the Tar Heel State. Elon University senior McKenzie Young investigated the factors behind the state’s recent voting behavior, and her work is the latest to be featured in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2011.

McKenzie Young ’11 with her Lumen Prize mentor, associate professor Hunter Bacot

Young and her mentor, associate professor Hunter Bacot, are studying the shifts in party identification, ideology, and, by extension, voting behavior in North Carolina. The research looks at how these factors may have profound implications for the way candidates for national office woo state residents.

Young, a political science and statistics double major from Huntington, W.V., plans to attend graduate school for a doctorate in political science with a focus on American politics and political behavior.

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects.

The program includes course work, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad, internships locally and abroad, program development, and creative productions and performances.

Young recently sat down with the Office of University Relations to share details of her work.

Can you tell me a little about the research you are doing?
My mentor and I are looking at changes in party identification, ideology and voter registration to see if the voting behavior that we witnessed in ’08, with its shift to the Democratic Party at the presidential level, will filter to local and state elections in coming cycles.

What are reasons that more people are affiliating as Independents as opposed to Republican or Democrat?
We’re not quite sure of all the reasons. We saw a lot of press about the youth vote in 2008. More people are registering – a lot of minorities and younger people. But that wasn’t really the determining factor in North Carolina. My research focuses on how the state is becoming more moderate, and because North Carolina is considered the most progressive southern state, these may be trends that continue in the rest of the region.

What interested you in this particular topic?
2008 was obviously a very passionate election year and we saw this big upset in North Carolina, which was supposed to vote for Sen. John McCain and then voted for President Obama. We wanted to see if this is an emerging trend that’s going to continue or if it was just a function of the specific election, if the specific candidates or the economy were the determining factors.

What interested you in politics?
I’ve always been passionate about politics, and in my sophomore year during the 2008 election, I had just switched my major to political science. I was in the public opinion polling course and was able to work on questions with the Elon University Poll. When we saw these big upsets in North Carolina, I wanted to see why this was happening.

What were some of the most significant findings of the research?
Although we have yet to incorporate data from 2010, the overall trends in ideology and partisanship since 2005 indicate that North Carolina voters are becoming more moderate and independent in their political affiliation. We saw in 2009 a sharp decrease in the number of conservatives who were identifying as Republicans. These voters were moving to an independent identification. Then we see this increase with the Tea Party, and you would think that conservative voters would move toward the Republican Party. Most of them are moving away from both parties to this more moderate, independent stance. By including any changes in 2010, we will be able to evaluate whether this moderation, which increased the most in 2008, continued through another election year.

Why do you think this research is important?
The south is sometimes viewed – especially at the presidential level – as a Republican block. However, North Carolina does not always adhere to this stereotype. Until 2008, the state followed the rest of the south at the presidential level, but supported Democratic candidates at the state and local level. The surge of Democratic voting at all levels of government in 2008 gave us an indication that North Carolina might be moving further away from southern voting trends to become more similar to the rest of the country.

As a preliminary observation, while Democratic losses in 2010 could be portrayed as a return to southern voting behavior, the simultaneous support for Republican state legislative candidates and incumbent Democrats at the congressional level shows the complexity of North Carolina politics. Understanding political behavior in North Carolina is not only important because of North Carolina’s swing state status, but because it may provide an indication of future voting trends throughout the south.

Have you only been looking at presidential elections?
The specific factors we’re studying are self-identified party affiliation and ideology, as well as voter registration, so we’re not specifically looking at any election or any races. We’re just looking at how voters identify themselves. Even if they identify with the Republican Party they may not register that way, they may not vote that way. But to see how people are identifying, how they see themselves, normally will predict how they will vote.

What makes North Carolina unique? Why are we the progressive state in the south?
North Carolina, especially with issues dating back to the civil rights era, was more progressive and has been more accepting, especially with race relations and education. We see a lot of conservatives who still identify as Democrats from before that era, but then we see these voters who have moved in from the north and don’t quite know where to identify. Because there are all these diverse populations, it’s interesting to see how they vote, how they see themselves in terms of party identification and ideology, and to see if we can make predictions about how the state will vote and how the south may trend in the future.

Can you share how the Lumen Prize has helped in the research? Would this have been possible without the funding?
The Lumen Prize has helped me so much, especially in the application process. I didn’t have a specific research plan before applying for the Lumen Prize, and the process allowed me to map out the last two years of my college experience and to really focus my research and connect with a mentor. Without him, and without this specific plan, I can’t imagine that the conference presentations that I’ve been to, the paper that I’m going to finish this year, would be happening.

Will you continue on with this research?
I definitely want to continue with this research, especially into 2012, to include another election year to really see if this trend is going to continue or if it was a function of the 2008 elections.

– Interview by Sarah Costello ’11, Office of University Relations