Republicans in North Carolina are crowing that election results show the state is red trending. Don’t believe them. Nothing has really changed outside of the county boundaries. The state is still a swing state, leaning towards the GOP. Ted Budd may have won the state, but Democrat Wiley Nickel won the state’s only competitive congressional race in a Republican-leaning district. As always, Democrats will do better in years of higher turnout.
House Speaker Tim Moore wants to credit Republican politics for their victory in last Tuesday’s general election. He claims that all of the GOP’s economic policies attract people to the state, but North Carolina grew faster in the first decade of the 21st centurySt century when it was under Democratic control than in the second decade when Republicans controlled the legislature. Also, companies like Apple chose to move here despite the GOP. Had Republican Pat McCrory won re-election in 2016, the GOP’s social policies almost certainly would have kept them out.
Additionally, it’s these new residents that are keeping North Carolina from becoming a strong red state. In high-growth urban counties, Democrats have increased their margins over the past decade and reduced their deficit in fast-growing suburban counties. In contrast, Republicans see their margins growing in aging counties where populations are shrinking. The GOP can still do well in low turnout years like this, but it will struggle to maintain momentum in higher turnout years going forward.
That year, Republicans benefited from low turnout from the Democratic base. I suspect when the numbers are complete they will show that young people underperformed significantly in 2018 and African American voters had the lowest turnout since Barack Obama won the state in 2008. Overall, despite a Senate race, voter turnout was more than two percent below this year’s 2018 and a blue moon election four years ago.
Part of the blame for the low turnout must lie with the top of the ticket. While Cheri Beasley ran a competent campaign, raised money to be competitive and kept the race closed through the fall, she failed to engage and motivate the grassroots. She ran a cautious campaign in a year in which she had to take risks, either by being more assertive about some of her more controversial positions, like legalizing marijuana, or by later hitting Budd much harder. According to polls, her sane political positions won independent voters by six points, but she still lost as Republican turnout far outpaced Democrat turnout.
But it’s not all Beasley’s fault. The Democrats have built a coalition dependent on unreliable voters. Voters under the age of 40 are running for the presidential campaign, but voting in the midterm elections with far fewer votes. The Republican base is made up of older people who vote much more frequently.
The election showed that white voters in rural areas continue to switch to Republican, but voters in high-growth areas such as Durham and Orange Counties are voting even more strongly for Democrats. For Democrats to remain competitive in the state, they must give younger voters both something to vote for and something to vote against. If Republicans continue to nominate Donald Trump for president and candidates like Dan Forest or Mark Robinson for governor, Democrats will continue to win at the statewide level throughout the presidential years. The state really doesn’t move much. It keeps its deep purple hue.
Thomas Mills is the founder and editor of PoliticsNC.com. Before joining PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a policy and public relations consultant. Learn more >