John Hood: Carolina politics offers national lessons

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 22, 2018

RALEIGH — If you are a political junkie, you follow closely the daily ins and outs of elections and legislation. I do, too. Let’s step back for a second, take a breath, and consider the phenomenal events of the past decade.

A first-term U.S. Senator from Illinois with a challenging name became the first African-American president. The Republicans, seemingly down and out after the 2006 and 2008 cycles, took over Congress and became the dominant party in state capitals for the first time since the 1920s. Next, a political outsider with a mixture of unorthodox views and impolitic behavior won the presidency, albeit with a smaller share of the nationwide vote that the losing GOP candidate received in 2012.

Fascinating. Improbable. Weird. Take your pick of colorful adjectives and they’ll all fit. But in retrospect, at least, these developments aren’t entirely inexplicable. They reflect measurable changes in political coalitions and voter sentiment. And North Carolina is a good place to observe and interpret them.

According to 2017 surveys by the Gallup Organization, North Carolina is one of the closest states to the national median in political preference. On one measure, the net lean to the Democrats or Republicans, we are one of only six states (along with Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia, Maine, and Colorado) to be within two percentage points of the median. On another measure, approval of President Trump’s job performance, North Carolina is one of eight states (including Delaware, Oregon, Colorado, Minnesota, Virginia, Texas, and Michigan) within two points of the national median.

Here’s another interesting finding: Gallup asked Americans to describe their overall political views as conservative, moderate, or liberal. Across the nation, an average of 36 percent said they were moderates. Precisely the same share described their views as moderate in nine states — including, you guessed it, North Carolina.

Our recent elections have featured closely fought contests for governor, U.S. Senator, and North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes for president. While favorable district maps for Congress and the General Assembly — partly a result of line-drawing, partly a consequence of Democratic voters living disproportionately in urban counties — have produced significant Republican advantages in elected lawmakers, the statewide gap in party preference isn’t large.

(North Carolinians with short memories or short residencies in the state should know that during the previous decade, GOP legislative candidates repeatedly matched or exceeded the Democrats in votes statewide but never held a majority of states in either chamber. There’s nothing new about skewed district maps, in other words, which is not to say we shouldn’t do something about it.)

Here’s a less-familiar but telling statistic: Republicans now control 55 of the state’s 100 county commissions. Just a decade ago, they controlled only 36.

To a significant extent, North Carolina’s political changes mirror the national story. So, what can we learn about the latter from the experience of the former?

Investment matters. North Carolina went from a mostly Democratic state to a highly competitive state in part because of patient and savvy investment by Republicans in candidates, other political talent, and organizations. Both political coalitions have vastly more resources at their disposal than before, and exhibit more sophistication in how they deploy those resources.

Demographic shifts matter. Generations ago, many conservative-leaning voters — be they in our state or in many other now-competitive ones in the South and Midwest — were registered Democrats and often split their tickets, voting Republican for president and sometimes other federal offices while voting Democratic down the ballot. In other states, liberal-leaning Republicans did the reverse.

Their children and grandchildren, however, re-sorted themselves according to their political views rather than regional histories or family traditions. Because there were more conservative Democrats than liberal Republicans, the net result was a boost for the GOP brand (in voter preference, I mean — don’t be distracted by the less-important trend toward registering unaffiliated, since most independents vote reliably as Rs or Ds).

When North Carolina stops being politically competitive, and starts leaning consistently to one side, you can expect the nation to follow.


John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30p and Sundays at 12:30p on UNC-TV.