Between 1984 and 2008, North Carolina Democrats never received more than 42% of the vote in a presidential election. Even when Southerner Bill Clinton nearly won the state in 1992, he garnered exactly that number, and the reason that George H.W. Bush didn’t easily dispatch him appeared to be that Ross Perot siphoned off a portion of the state’s natural Republican support. Barack Obama significantly mollified this futility in 2008 by winning the state, a surprise upset that transformed observers’ understanding of North Carolina politics. Democrats have hoped to build on that success every cycle since the sparkling landslide that steered North Carolina into the Democratic column.
But this aspiration has been repeatedly frustrated. Since 2008, Democrats have prevailed in only one election cycle, the 2018 “Blue Moon” contest in which no major race topped the ballot to polarize the state on liberal-conservative lines. Glimmers of optimism have been rendered into the disappointment of the elusive, as when Kay Hagan failed to capitalize on state-legislative overreach in her race against unpopular mediocrity Thom Tillis. By 2020, Washington Democrats had downgraded the state as a national priority, and N.C.’s swing-state status had fallen decisively into the second tier.
Given this sobering trail of defeats, North Carolinians might be expected to conclude that they live in an enduringly red state. But most state political observers, while acknowledging the red hue that has surfaced regularly in recent elections, maintain that North Carolina is a purple swing state–and some even believe it is trending blue. This optimism, in fact, is not without merit.
In this instance, sociology underlies politics. North Carolina is a dramatically different state than it was in 1980, 1990, or even 2004. Beginning in the early 90s, the state became majority-urban for the first time in its history–60 years after urban American eclipsed the nation’s rural minority, but a fundamental change nonetheless. These urban areas initially tilted the state in a more Republican direction because transplants brought a Northern Republicanism to a state that had lingered in the inertia of the Democratic Solid South. But now every major urban county votes Democratic, and the biggest parts of the urban crescent–Wake and Mecklenburg–each regularly clear 60% of the vote for Democratic candidates. This is the new backbone of the North Carolina Democratic Party.
Urbanization has driven the state in a more Democratic direction. Recall that 42% used to be the ceiling for Democrats in the state. Now even a Democrat as unpopular as Hillary Clinton managed to get almost 47% in a presidential race. Democrats are now assured 45-47% in any competitive election, a solid base that puts them within range of winning elections that once would have been out of reach. The Democratic position continues to weaken in rural areas, but their large urban base has grown and matured into a force for Team Blue’s competitiveness no matter dismal the outcomes in blue-collar country redoubts that once, to invoke the old cliche, would have voted for a Yellow Dog over any Republican.
This much urban transformation may have suggested an immediate shift towards blue voting. But the state remains red. Why? The answer is that Republicans have outpaced Democrats in turnout in a dramatic fashion. Over the last six election cycles, Republicans have consistently turned out at a 5-10% higher rate than Democrats even when milquetoast candidates such as Ted Budd and Thom Tillis led the GOP ticket. Republicans represent 33% of registered voters in the state but 37% of voter turnout. If Democrats, in fact, had managed only to equalize turnout in Wake and Mecklenburg Counties, the Charlotte area could have put Kay Hagan over the top and significantly eroded Budd’s advantage over Cheri Beasley. This problem must be tractable.
The trend we’ve seen toward exceptional Republican turnout performance may not keep its momentum forever. That’s because the pool of latent Republican voters is shrinking. While one reason Republicans have won statewide elections is that they still dominate in the fastest-growing exurban counties, all but one of those counties has trended significantly Democratic since 2004. Furthermore, the Republicans’ rural base–the wellspring of Trump’s two victories–is losing population across the board. Rural North Carolina is a diminishing political asset for Republicans. If a trend can’t go on forever, it won’t, and the turnout machine that’s powered the NCGOP Era fits that bill.
Democrats thus hold a fundamental advantage in demographic trends and the potential to recover ground when turnout dynamics balance out. On a deep, raw level, the state is trending blue. This is the case for optimism for North Carolina Democrats despite a lengthy string of defeats that has left the state in the hands of a corrupt and maniacal right-wing legislature. Democrats need to prove, however, that this potential is real. If they continue to proclaim the favorable trends for their party without producing a victory to prove its legitimacy, the national party may give up on them in full. Then, as we saw when Ted Budd enjoyed a $60 million advantage over the far-more-talented Cheri Beasley, all this demographic potential will turn to dust.
Next week, I’ll lay out the case for a guarded pessimism among Democrats.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.