Historically, high turn-out elections have benefited Democrats. In North Carolina, the one time a Democratic presidential candidate won the state in the last 40 years, Barack Obama in 2008, we had the highest turnout in decades. The 2020 election cycle is may be even higher. Nate Cohn of the New York Times writes, “The 2020 presidential election is poised to have the highest turnout in a century.”

However, Cohn says it’s unclear whether Democrats or Republicans will benefit this time. That’s consistent with the past two election cycles in North Carolina. While 2016 turnout was lower than 2008, registered Republicans showed up at a considerably higher rate than in other presidential cycles. In 2018, the state had the highest midterm election in decades despite being a Blue Moon election. While Democrats picked up seats, Republicans turnout at significantly higher rates than Democrats. 

Democratic turnout has fallen every presidential cycle since 2008, when it reached a high of 72%. By 2016, it was down to 68.5%. In contrast, Republican turnout has increased during the same period. It was 71.5% in 2008 and reached a whopping 75.3% when Donald Trump won the state in 2016. 

The 2018 election cycle saw Democrats put together a massive GOTV effort in the state. While they closed the gap with Republicans, their turnout was still below the GOP’s. Fifty-eight percent of Republicans voted last November and only 55% of Democrats did. The last time Democrats matched GOP turnout in a midterm election in North Carolina was in the 2006 Blue Moon election.

Republicans are at least as motivated to protect Trump as Democrats are to unseat him. Democratic gains in North Carolina in 2018 came because the unaffiliated voters, who saw their turnout increase to 46% from 35% in 2014, broke for Democrats. Their support may be a reflection of younger voters who increased their turnout dramatically but who increasingly register as unaffiliated. Voters under 40 saw their turnout increase from 19% in 2014 to 33% in 2018. 

The election in 2020 is especially crucial since the next legislature will likely draw new legislative and Congressional districts. To win enough districts in either state house or state senate, Democrats will need to have a better year than they did in 2018. Their turnout operation will need to be more robust and they’ll need to win more swing voters. Driving up turnout might help Roy Cooper win re-election and possibly send Thom Tillis packing, but Democrats will need to cut into the GOP’s margin in more conservative legislative districts that survived the 2018 wave.

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