North Carolina Presidential Race: ?? (D) vs. ?? (R)

Throughout 2016 we’re going to be looking at the most competitive statewide and legislative elections in North Carolina. We’re going to start off with a preliminary analysis of the presidential race in the Tar Heel State.

North Carolina has been in the “swing state” category for so long that we’re starting to get used to it. But the real story about the state’s purple status is what it says about the precarious position the Republican Party finds itself in, at least in presidential races. Democrats can afford to lose NC, Republicans can’t. If Democrats are competitive in North Carolina, that portends the election of a Democratic President.

In 2012, the state voted 5.9% more Republican than the national average – an indication that Democrats would need a significant popular vote victory to carry the state. That year, President Obama fell just short; it was the state Mitt Romney carried by the narrowest margin. The first step to a Republican victory nationwide is to take North Carolina off the table, allowing the GOP to compete in states like Ohio, Colorado, and Virginia.

Unfortunately for the GOP this year, the Republican divide and the prospect of Donald Trump or Ted Cruz heading the national ticket means the state is very much on the table for Hillary Clinton, who is for all intents and purposes the presumptive nominee. The latest Public Policy Polling survey shows both Trump and Cruz trailing the former Secretary of State. The only candidate that takes North Carolina off the table is also the least likely of the three remaining GOP candidates to win the nomination – Governor John Kasich of Ohio.

Interestingly, the top two Republicans trail for different reasons. Trump does better than Cruz with Democrats and independents but fails to unite the Republican base. Cruz unites the party behind him but lacks crossover appeal with Democrats and has a narrower advantage with independents. Given the Democratic advantage in voter registration in the state, it is no surprise that the polls show both candidates struggling to beat Hillary Clinton.

In addition to polls, voter registration trends can tell us a little about where North Carolina might be leaning this year. Since Election Day 2012, Democrats have lost over 200,000 voters. Republicans have lost about 70,000 voters. At the same time, there’s been a huge surge in unaffiliated voters – almost 150,000. There are now almost as many registered unaffiliated voters as there are Republicans in the state, and the candidates will need to appeal to this growing group in order to win. Historically, unaffiliated voters in North Carolina have leaned towards Republicans, and the GOP will need to maintain this advantage if they want to put the state in the Republican column this year.

Given the racial polarization of the state, registration by race also needs to be considered. Over 140,000 white voters were removed from the voter rolls since 2012 and only around 37,000 black voters. The category “Other” has increased by about 40,000. These are probably mostly Hispanics, a demographic group with which the GOP has struggled over the past few years.

More important than the voter registration breakdown will be the actual turnout in November. In particular, black turnout will be of great importance. Four years ago, they comprised 23% of the electorate and President Obama won them overwhelmingly. In no swing state was the black vote more consequential than North Carolina. With Obama off the ticket, African American turnout is expected to decline. A major drop in turnout is not anticipated, but even a slight decrease would put Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the state in jeopardy.

Even with a decline in black turnout (and support), Clinton could still carve out a narrow victory statewide by performing better with white voters, in particular white suburbanites. In 2012, Romney’s performance with this demographic was “just enough” to win, though it paled in comparison to George W. Bush’s strength with them in 2004. Currently, polls show that both Trump and Cruz will have trouble replicating even Mitt Romney’s mediocre performance with this group. If that happens, Clinton will get huge margins out of the state’s urban counties, where educated suburbanites dominate – more than enough to offset any decline in African American turnout.

Geographically, the most important county for Democrats is Mecklenburg County (Charlotte). Charlotte was the site of the Democratic National Convention in 2012 and the Obama campaign organization helped deliver a 100,000+ margin for the President there. Other counties where Democrats will need a big turnout: Durham, Wake, Guilford, and Orange. In fact, all of the I-85 Piedmont Crescent will be of vital importance to both parties considering the size of the population there. Republicans will need to at the very least replicate their middling 2012 performance there, while maintaining their margins in the mid-sized suburban counties in the Piedmont and the Charlotte exurbs. Counties that are GOP sources of strength include Randolph, Davidson, Union, Iredell, Gaston, Johnston, and Catawba.

The bottom line: to be competitive for a nationwide victory, Republicans need to take North Carolina off the table. The state has been trending blue in recent years but it’s still a state the GOP should be able to count on in an even presidential election. That Hillary Clinton is leading in the state right now is an indication that the Republicans have problems far more concerning than North Carolina. Things could change but at this point, the 2016 presidential election in the state looks to be a replay of the last two election cycles – not a good starting point for a Republican Party that wants to take back the White House this year.

State Rating: Pure Toss-Up

2012 Result
50.4% Romney
48.4% Obama

Voter Registration
40.6% Democratic
30.5% Republican
28.5% Unaffiliated

70.4% White
22.3% Black
7.3% Other

Results in Other Elections
2014 Senate
48.8% Tillis
47.3% Hagan

2012 Governor
54.6% McCrory
43.2% Dalton

2010 Senate
54.8% Burr
43.1% Marshall

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