If you’re interested in what has happened to North Carolina politically, you should read the article by Chris Kromm and Sue Sturgis that lays out a more comprehensive version of the state of things in the Old North State.
Over the past six months, pundits, columnists and interested observers have been asking, “What happened to North Carolina?” They are referring, of course, to the draconian, and often laughable, legislation moving through the state’s legislature. It’s a stark contrast to the progressive state that competed with Silicon Valley and Boston’s Route 128 for high-tech, high-paying jobs.
But there are other questions, too. Was Obama’s victory in 2008 an anomaly? Is North Carolina becoming more conservative? Will it be a battleground state in 2016?
Let’s start with the what happened question.
In 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign recognized an opportunity in North Carolina. African-Americans made up more than 20% of the registered voters but had been making up less than 18% of the electorate. In addition, the state was one of the fastest growing in the country with a large influx of people from more progressive states and a growing Hispanic population. The newcomers came with more Democratic leanings.
Prior the May 2008 primary, the Obama campaign began registration drives targeting African-American and younger voters. Their embrace of social media combined with their message of hope and change fueled a movement among 20-somethings tired of war and uneasy about their economic future. Total registration jumped 700,000 in North Carolina from 2004 to 2008.
The election was truly a perfect storm. Obama’s message could not have been more appropriate for a country facing an economic collapse and endless wars. His unprecedented field operation embraced new technology to zero in on likely supporters and put them into the polls. In contrast, John McCain’s campaign was as erratic as Obama’s was disciplined, leaving the GOP base uninspired and demoralized.
In addition, Obama was helped in North Carolina by a strong supporting cast. After struggling to find a candidate to challenge Sen. Elizabeth Dole, Democrats found Kay Hagan to be a perfect foil to the absentee Dole. Bev Perdue came out of a bruising primary but the combination of Hagan and Perdue brought in money and firepower from powerful interests groups like EMILY’s list, National Education Association and SEIU.
Obama won North Carolina by the narrowest of margins, 14,000 votes, but changed the perception of the state. Minority voters made up 23% of the electorate and voters under 30 increased their share by 4% over 2004. The changing Demographics of the state established North Carolina as a solidly purple state.
Then came 2010. Everything that went right for Democrats in 2008, went wrong in 2010. The economy that Obama was elected to fix was mired in the deepest recession since the Great Depression. The fight over health care reform had galvanized the reactionary Tea Party movement and motivated the GOP’s angry white base.
In North Carolina, the U. S. Senate race to challenge Richard Burr ended in a run-off that didn’t take place until the end of June, leaving nominee Elaine Marshall cash-strapped just four months before the general election. As the political environment deteriorated nationally for Democrats, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and it’s progressive allies went into bunker mode and focused virtually all of their resources on incumbent Senators in an effort to protect their majority.
With little help from the top of the ticket, Democrats down-ballot scrambled to protect themselves. However, the national wave was just too strong. The excitement that had fueled a 70% turnout in 2008 was gone and only 44% of the registered voters turned out. Angry white voters, many who had skipped the 2008 election, showed up at the polls while many of the idealistic younger voters stayed home.
Democrats lost majorities in both houses of the legislature in a redistricting year. A quirk in North Carolina denies the Governor veto power over the new districts so Republicans had their way with the North Carolina electorate. They packed African-Americans and Democrats into a few districts, leaving very few swing districts and the certainty of a GOP majority for at least the next few cycles.
If North Carolina Democrats suffered a Republican wave in 2010, they faced a meltdown in 2012. Governor Bev Perdue never managed to get her approval ratings out of the basement but waited until January 2012 to announce her plans not to run for re-election. Such short notice left Democrats scrambling and several jumped into a sprint of a primary. In the midst of it, the state party suffered a sexual harassment scandal that just reminded voters of the numerous petty scandals that had plagued two administrations of Democratic Governors. Lt. Governor Walter Dalton emerged as the nominee, broke and battered, and never really became competitive with the better financed and organized McCrory.
Through it all, though, Obama seemed to stay competitive in the state. Polls throughout the summer showed the President and Romney tied or within the margin of error. When it was over, Obama lost but North Carolina was the second closest state in the nation for the second election cycle in a row.
While Democrats lost solidly two cycles in a row, trends emerged that show the future of North Carolina. Even with the low turnout in 2010, African-Americans still made up over 20% of the electorate. Between 2008 and 2012 the Hispanic registration doubled and Obama won 68% of that vote. According to Pew, only 24% of the state’s Hispanic population is eligible to vote but that will change with time. In addition, 51% of the votes cast in Congressional races were for Democrats despite Republicans winning 9 of the 13 Congressional Districts.
So, yes. North Carolina will be competitive in 2016. The state will continue to grow and the new demographics will favor Democrats. Unless Republicans change their policies and philosophy, they will likely be a solid minority party in the state sometime in the next 10 years.
The only caveat to that conclusion would be if the regressive policies floating through the legislature scare off businesses and significantly slow growth. They’ve made sharp cuts to the public university system that has been a major economic engine and they’re curbing the authority of the urban areas where businesses want to locate. So the question comes down to, how badly are Republicans willing to damage the state to retain their advantage?
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >