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Michael Bitzer: Unique trends emerge in 9th District results

By Michael Bitzer

The two-point margin of victory for Republican Dan Bishop over Democrat Dan McCready in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District might give some clues about where things stand in the American electorate while also demonstrating some voting trends unique to the Old North State.

Much of the national attention was on whether 2018’s last congressional election would be a potential bellwether election leading into the 2020 election cycle. The battle over the 9th showed that a historically Republican district (GOP-controlled since 1963) that was drawn as a safe district performed as a Republican district.

McCready took a Trump +12 (he carried the district 54-42 over Clinton in 2016) and made it a close contest. But the political environment showed that even within some highly unusual conditions (the 2018 election called into question due to ballot fraud and an election coinciding with Charlotte City Council primary elections) partisan loyalty managed to keep the district Republican.

In Union County, the strong Republican, suburban county next to Charlotte, both Mark Harris, the 2018 Republican, and Bishop secured 60% of the vote. And within Union’s precincts, Harris’ vote percentage and Bishop’s were closely aligned.

Bishop’s precinct vote relationship to Harris’ precinct percentages is remarkably strong. The adjusted r-squared value is 0.986, with a 1.0 being a perfect relationship between the two.

And it wasn’t just in a strong Republican county that saw voter loyalty. In the growing Democratic county of Mecklenburg, its southern Charlotte portions and suburban areas in the 9th, Harris’ precinct vote percentage and Bishop’s is remarkable again:

Political scientists have remarked about the partisan loyalty of American voters.

While 2018’s 9th District election saw a registered voter turnout of 53 % compared to 2019’s registered voter turnout of 37%, the close relationship between one Republican candidate’s performance in a precinct to another Republican candidate’s performance just 10 months later demonstrates that loyalty.

As the nation heads into another competitive campaign, voter behavior will likely demonstrate that partisan loyalty amongst the “troops” is a key facet of the 2020 election.

The nation’s divide between urban and rural counties is evident in North Carolina, and this week’s 9th Congressional District election showed that Mecklenburg County’s once urban/suburban Republican strongholds are moving more in line with other national urban counties in Democratic dominance.

South Charlotte and several suburban towns in Mecklenburg anchor the 9th’s western portion. Referred to as the Charlotte GOP “wedge,” this area was a Republican stronghold, but has transitioned into competitive and sometimes leaning Democratic.

All but one of the 50 Mecklenburg precincts in the 9th increased their Democratic vote share between each of three recent elections, with former Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan getting an average of 41% of the 2014 U.S. Senate vote, Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton securing 46% of the 2016 vote and McCready getting 54% in 2018 and 56% of the vote in 2019.

The 9th District may give some clues about 2020, but there were unique dynamics in 2019.

While rural areas are described as GOP country, and the 2019 9th District election had its fair share of rural counties outside of urban/suburban Mecklenburg and suburban Union County, one North Carolina exception to the national trend of rural politics is the strong presence of voters of color.

Traveling east out of Mecklenburg and Union counties, there are the very rural counties of Anson, Richmond, Scotland, Robeson and Bladen before ending the more urban/suburban Cumberland, home to Fayetteville.

Robeson County presents a unique voter population: 29% identify as white, 28% as black or African-American and 35% as American Indian, the Lumbee Tribe.

In 2018, McCready garnered 56% of Robeson’s vote, but just 10 months later, he received barely 50%. What happened?

In Robeson’s precincts with at least half of its registered voters identifying as American Indian, a noticeable electoral shift occurred. The precincts went from an average 58% for McCready in 2018 to 47% support in 2019, a drop of 11 points. In precincts with less than 50% American Indian registered voters, McCready dropped from 56% to 51%, only five points, with many precincts returning the same percentage to the Democrat in both elections.

Bishop’s campaign made the Lumbees an obvious focus of their campaign strategy, and that helped to squeeze out the tight margin of overall victory.

Michael Bitzer is a professor and chair of Catawba College’s Politics Department. This is an excerpt of a longer analysis of the 9th District results that appears on on his website, oldnorthstatepolitics.com.

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