North Carolina Democrats want to change the U.S. Senate math in 2022. But is their problem math or English?

In 1990, Harvey Gantt lost the Senate race to Jesse Helms by 100,000 votes. Afterward, a Democratic consultant assured me: “North Carolina’s demographics are changing. We’ll win next time.”

Thirty years later, Cal Cunningham lost the Senate race to Thom Tillis – again, by 100,000 votes.

The electorate definitely has changed. In 1990, 2 million people voted. In 2020, 5.5 million voted. 

The percentages have changed. Gantt lost by 5%; Cunningham, by 1.7%.

But the outcome was the same. In fact, Democrats have lost nine of 11 Senate races since 1990.

Demographics haven’t changed Democrats’ destiny.

North Carolina is growing fast. We added nearly a million people between 2010 and 2020, from 9.5 million to 10.4 million, a 9.5% growth rate. We’re one of just six states that will get another congressional seat.

Many of the new people are urban, college-educated, younger, and racially and culturally diverse – more likely to be Democratic voters.

But many people moving here obviously aren’t voting Democratic. Many are older retirees, or military retirees. Many left other states because of high taxes.

There are still many rural, religious, conservative white voters. In both 2016 and 2020, the Trump turnout surprised Democratic pollsters.

James Carville, the sharp-tongued Democratic warhorse, thinks the problem is language. In a scathing interview with Vox, he said, “Wokeness is a problem, and we all know it.” Democrats are guilty of “faculty lounge language”:

“You ever get the sense that people in faculty lounges in fancy colleges use a different language than ordinary people? They come up with a word like “Latinx” that no one else uses. Or they use a phrase like ‘communities of color.’ I don’t know anyone who speaks like that. I don’t know anyone who lives in a ‘community of color.’ I know lots of white and Black and brown people and they all live in … neighborhoods.

“There’s nothing inherently wrong with these phrases. But this is not how people talk. This is not how voters talk. And doing it anyway is a signal that you’re talking one language and the people you want to vote for you are speaking another language.”

He added, “And maybe tweeting that we should abolish the police isn’t the smartest thing to do.”

In an essay, “The Bitter Heartland,” Clinton Administration veteran William A. Galston says “social conservatives and white Christians” – that is, Trump voters – feel a powerful resentment toward political and cultural liberalism. Why?

“They have a sense of displacement in a country they once dominated. Immigrants, minorities, non-Christians, even atheists have taken center stage, forcing them to the margins of American life.

“They believe we (liberals) have a powerful desire for moral coercion. We tell them how to behave — and, worse, how to think. When they complain, we accuse them of racism and xenophobia….

“They believe we hold them in contempt.

“Finally, they think we are hypocrites. We claim to support free speech — until someone says something we don’t like. We claim to oppose violence — unless it serves a cause we approve of. We claim to defend the Constitution — except for the Second Amendment. We support tolerance, inclusion, and social justice — except for people like them.”

Carville concedes, “Democrats are never going to win a majority of these voters….  But the difference between getting beat 80-20 and 72-28 is all the difference in the world.”

For their 2022 homework, Democrats should study both math and messaging.

Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, a political consultant, and an adviser to Governor Jim Hunt (1976-1984 and 1992-2000). He blogs about politics and public policy at www.NewDayforNC.com.        

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