Three years ago, in the fateful 2016 election, the Democratic Party lost North Carolina despite what seemed to be strong trends in their favor. No election result can be reduced to a single cause, but if one factor stood out as preeminent, turnout was it. Contrary to expectations, Republican constituencies voted at a strikingly increased rate relative to previous elections. You could call it the Trump Surge.
By contrast, Democratic turnout lagged. African-American and Hispanic voters–especially men–came out to vote at much lower levels than when Barack Obama was on the ballot. The problem held in both urban and rural areas, but it was most pronounced in the countryside. Set against the Trump Surge, Democratic deficiencies doomed Team Blue to a disastrous election.
Ominously for Democrats, the problem still has not been solved. Candidate Dan McCready made notable gains in suburban Charlotte in the second NC-09 election, but he came up short because of weakness in rural counties–a weakness caused, in large part, by depressed minority turnout. Higher Democratic turnout in rural Eastern North Carolina could have helped Allen Thomas lose by less than the landslide margin that he suffered against Congressman Greg Murphy. There’s little sign that Democrats have solved their turnout challenge.
Republicans, on the other hand, show signs of high enthusiasm. A recent poll had Republican voters expressing higher levels of interest in the presidential campaign than their Democratic counterparts. In North Carolina, GOP turnout could be supercharged by the far right’s Dream Ticket of Donald Trump and Dan Forest. The Democratic ticket, which could be led by three white men, risks demoralizing a diverse base hungry for change.
Democrats are well positioned to win suburban swing voters, especially in Raleigh and Charlotte. That breakthrough will not be enough, however, if they cannot at least stay competitive in the the turnout battle. They can’t count on an easy technological fix for this problem, as Hillary Clinton’s wizardly but unsuccessful campaign showed. The party needs a candidate and a message that will inspire their voters to show up without alienating the swing voters they desperately need. Unfortunately, neither asset is obviously on hand.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.