Alexander H. Jones: GOP advantage in 50-50 state won’t continue forever

Published 11:59 pm Wednesday, February 23, 2022

By Alexander H. Jones

The last five statewide North Carolina elections have been decided by 2%, 1.5%, 3.7%, 2%, and 1.3%.

That record of narrow electoral decisions should mark the Tar Heel state as one of the purplest states in the nation. But the following factor complicates that conclusion: Republicans have been on the winning side in four out of those five elections. Potentially most importantly, they won a momentous victory in 2010, taking control of the North Carolina General Assembly for the first time in 100 years and securing the right to draw election maps for the state for the following decade. The resulting partisan gerrymandering has deepened the state’s reddish hue.

North Carolina is a highly competitive state with a slight Republican lean. Too many N.C. Democratic politicos’ vision of the state remains frozen in 2008, when the state voted for Barack Obama for president and appeared to be an emergent New South juggernaut for the Democratic Party. It was possible then to consider North Carolina a pure purple state clearly trending in a blue direction, and Democrats have built campaign after campaign on a blueprint derived from those assumptions. This strategy has resulted in Democrats falling short repeatedly in a state where they expected to have emerged at an advantage after 14 years of demographic change.

Unfortunately for FDR’s party, the forces that made North Carolina a solid-red state in the 10 elections prior to Obama’s landslide did not vanish overnight when the charismatic Illinois senator narrowly tipped the state into the Democratic column. North Carolina is among the most rural of the 20 most-populous states in the country. Religion runs strong in our state, with North Carolina being the ninth-most religious state in the country. Six hundred and sixty-seven thousand veterans live here, and defense is the second-largest industry after agriculture. In an era when rural voters, evangelical Christians and veterans comprise the core of the Republican base, North Carolina has become an elusive target for the Democrats.

That is not the end of the story, however. Our state’s underlying demographics do continue a slow, clear march toward the Democratic Party. Almost all of the state’s population growth between 2010 and 2020 took place in urban areas, which have followed their counterparts across the Sun Belt in tilting towards Democrats. There’s no reason to believe that this trend will end anytime soon. Wake County could easily jump from giving Democrats 60% of the vote, as in Loudoun County, Virginia, to 69%, as in Fairfax County. Mecklenburg is already there, and the exurbs of both Charlotte and Raleigh are quickly trending “blue.” Further, the state is also becoming more educated – an advantage for Democrats given that college-educated voters have become a vital Democratic constituency.

Republicans, meanwhile, have benefited from turnout levels that are simply extraordinary. One of the state’s most astute political observers, Michael Bitzer of Catawba College, speculated before the 2020 election that Republicans had maxed out rural turnout. That turned out to be wrong. Anchored by rural areas, Republican voters turned out at a staggering 81% rate, propelled by their giddy adoration of Donald J. Trump. While their frothy rage over “critical race theory” may continue to inspire high GOP turnout, it is hard to imagine the Democratic Party’s turnout disadvantage getting much worse by the end of the decade. Demographics alone will eventually boost Democratic candidates.

So while North Carolina is a purplish-red state for the time being, this may transition from narrow Republican victories to a small but sustainable Democratic lean by the end of this decade. Voters under the age of 40 and voters with college degrees or urban addresses will provide a second wind to a party that has come up short repeatedly but remains more competitive than almost anywhere in the South. Democrats will have to fight tenaciously to reverse their streak of disappointments, but a cold assessment of trends and results says that the party likely has a bright future in the Tar Heel State.

Alexander H. Jones is a policy analyst with Carolina Forward. He lives in Chapel Hill. Have feedback? Reach him at alex@carolinaforward.org.

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