Poll: Durham voters paid close attention to issues, endorsements but differed by race

Andrea Benjamin
Andrea Benjamin

On Election Day, as Durham voters left the polls, my students asked them to take our survey. In all, 696 voters agreed to take our survey. (Our margin of error is plus/minus 4 percent.)

We conducted our exit poll at 18 of the 56 polling locations.* We asked about vote choice, endorsements, issues, and basic demographics in order to understand more about why voters preferred one candidate over another.

Turnout in this election was 18.71 percent (36,181 out of 193,346 registered voters). There are limitations to the data: our sample is 67 percent white, 28 percent black, and roughly 2 percent Latino, Asian-American, and Native American, while registered voters in the city are 39 percent black, 45 percent white, 3 percent Latino/a/x and Asian American, and less than 1 percent Native American.

There is a stark racial divide in terms of candidate preferences in the sample. Whites preferred Steve Schewel (77 percent), DeDreana Freeman (71 percent), John Rooks (55 percent), and Vernetta Alston (74 percent). Blacks preferred Farad Ali (76 percent), Cora Cole-McFadden (58 percent), Mark-Anthony Middleton (60 percent) and Shelia Huggins (54 percent).

The mean age in the sample is 47. They are liberal (73 percent), well off (50 percent make more than $80,000 a year), well educated (89 percent earned a college degree or more), women (61 percent), Democrats (73 percent), and Progressive (76 percent).

They are paying close attention to the challenges we face as a city.

When asked to list their top three issues, respondents in our sample said: Affordable Housing (62 percent), Economic Development (55 percent), Police (49 percent), Parks and Open Spaces (47 percent), and Public Transportation (21 percent). I believe the sample of Durham voters is reflective of the type of resident that comes out to vote in an off-year election.

During the campaign, we heard a lot about our three main political action committees and their endorsements: The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Blacks People (DCABP), the Friends of Durham (Friends), and the People’s Alliance (PA).

The voters in our sample are very aware of the PAC endorsements, but this is not about PAC membership (72 are members of the PA, 22 are members of the DCABP, and 12 are members of the Friends). Many could correctly identify the PAC endorsements. DCABP: Ali (35 percent), Cole-McFadden (20 percent), Middleton (14 percent) and Huggins (12 percent). Friends: Ali (14 percent), Cole-McFadden (6 percent), Middleton (6 percent) and Huggins (4 percent). PA: Schewel (47 percent), Freeman (33 percent), Rooks (33 percent), and Alston (33 percent).

During the 2015 Durham Municipal Election, I conducted a similar exit poll, and less than 20 percent correctly identified the PA’s endorsement of Steve Schewel, Jillian Johnson, and Charlie Reece. For the DCABP: Schewel (17 percent), Ricky Hart (15 percent), and Mike Shiflett (12 percent). In the 2017 election, voters in the sample were much more aware of the endorsements

However, awareness of these endorsements is only one piece – winning matters. Three of my students created a dataset of the mayoral and City Council elections between 2001-2017. In that time, more than 70 people declared their candidacy for City Council and more than 20 people declared their candidacy for mayor (though the data here are not that exciting, given Mayor Bill eight terms).

In the general elections for City Council between 2001-2017, the DCABP endorsed 13 winning candidates, the Friends endorsed 14 winning candidates, and the PA endorsed 20 winning candidates. All three PACs endorsed the same winning candidates five times. Sometimes only one PAC endorsed a candidate that won the election. The DCABP endorsed two winning candidates on their own. The Friends endorsed one winning candidate on their own. The PA endorsed nine winning candidates on their own. Together, the Friends and the PA endorsed the same wining candidates three times. The DCABP and Friends endorsed the same winning candidates five times. Together, the DCABP and the PA did not endorse any of the same winning candidates between 2001-2017.

So how unique is Durham with regards to PAC endorsements?

Many cities had elections last month(and earlier this year). In Raleigh, Charlotte, New York City, and Los Angeles, we find some evidence that PACs in those cities are also picking winners. In this way, voters in Durham are like voters in many cities: PAC endorsements are one way to help voters make decisions in these local, non-partisan elections.

Andrea Benjamin is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at UNC-Chapel Hill. She studies local elections and is working on a project on politics in Durham. She can be reached at andreabz@email.unc.edu

* The polls we worked: Forest View Elementary School, Parkwood Volunteer Fire Department, St. Stephens Episcopal Church, Parish Hall, Forest Hill Club House, Cole Mill Rd. Church Of Christ, Southwest Elementary School, N.C. School of Science & Math, East Regional Library, McMannen United Methodist Church, Hope Valley Baptist Church, Ivy Community Center, Southern High School, Durham County Agricultural Building, South Regional Library, Holt Elementary School, Club Blvd. Humanities Magnet School, E.K. Powe Elementary School, American Legion Post #7, and Rogers-Herr Middle School polling stations.