John Hood: Ticket-splitters could prove decisive

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 6, 2024

By John Hood

Donald Trump will likely win North Carolina’s 16 electoral votes this year. Our state is a political battleground, no question about it, but in presidential races the Democratic Party always runs a bit uphill here.

In gubernatorial races, the topography looks different. The Democratic nominee this year, Attorney General Josh Stein, could certainly defeat Republican Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson even if the state goes red for president. That wouldn’t just be unsurprising. It would be normal.

Since the turn of the 20th century, North Carolinians have elected just three Republican governors: Jim Holshouser in 1972, Jim Martin in 1984 and 1988, and Pat McCrory in 2012.

That is to say, voters have routinely picked GOP candidates for president, Congress, and other offices while putting Democrats in the governor’s office.

To be more precise, some voters have split their tickets. Not too long ago, such voters constituted as much as a fifth of the state’s electorate. As recently as 2004, Republican George W. Bush won 56% of the vote here. That same year, Democratic Gov. Mike Easley was reelected with the same percentage.

Since then, though, the ranks of ticket-splitters have shrunk markedly, as Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer pointed at, a group blog he shares with other professors. “The dynamics of nationalization of American politics has a real impact on North Carolina’s voting patterns,” he wrote, “and is evident in the 2012 and subsequent elections: meaning, the ‘difference’ between a county’s vote for GOP presidential and gubernatorial candidates decreased — thus voters were picking one party for both slots, and not splitting their tickets.”

In 2004, Bitzer found, the share of the vote Bush won in a county was, on average, 89% predictive of how the GOP gubernatorial candidate, Patrick Ballentine, performed in that county.

By 2020, the presidential and gubernatorial outcomes were 99% aligned.

Today, only a few North Carolina voters seem willing to vote Republican for president and Democrat for governor. In our closely divided state, however, that’s sufficient. In 2020, Trump won 49.9% of the vote, edging out Joe Biden’s 48.6%. At the same time, Gov. Roy Cooper won reelection with 51.5% to Republican Dan Forest’s 47%. A swing of just three percentage points proved decisive.

Trump seems poised to do much better here than he did four years ago (or, more to the point, Biden is stumbling into a much-worse performance). In polling averages, the former president leads by five to six points. Meanwhile, Stein and Robinson are running neck-and-neck.

Consider the latest Carolina Journal Poll, conducted roughly a month ago. It showed Trump leading Biden by five points, 43% to 38%, while the gubernatorial nominees were tied at 39% each.

These results fit the larger pattern — if you focus only on the spreads. It’s worth noting, however, that these figures are rather low. Are 9% of likely North Carolina voters really undecided in the presidential race, or planning to vote for Robert Kennedy? And what happens when the Stein and Robinson campaigns begin telling low-information voters about their candidates and their opponents? There’s a fair amount of “play” left these numbers, it seems to me.

Still, as the 2024 election cycle heats up, I don’t expect a fifth or even a tenth of North Carolinians to rediscover the virtues of split-ticket voting. Parties are more cohesive than they were in the 1980s or even the 2000s — despite what you may read in fundraising letters or see on cable news. When push comes to shove, the vast majority of Democrats will come home to their party’s nominees. So will the vast majority of Republicans.

I would argue that Josh Stein is the most left-leaning nominee for governor in our state’s history — and Mark Robinson is probably the most controversial. How many soft Democrats or centrist independents who voted for Cooper four years ago will opt for Robinson this year? How many soft Republicans or centrist independents will go Trump-Stein?

Not many. But, quite possibly, enough.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history (