Following 2008, when Barack Obama won North Carolina, many Republicans and conservative pundits called the election a fluke. They believed that North Carolina is a red state that will stay that way for decades. The election this year showed that, in fact, 2008 was preview of what’s to come.
Granted, Obama’s election here came in the midst of a perfect storm. The economy was collapsing after eight years of George Bush, we were still embroiled in two wars and the prospect of an African-American president drew black voters to the polls in record numbers. Still, Obama’s victory signaled the beginning of a political realignment that’s still happening and will benefit Democrats in the long run.
The election this year showed how the Obama coalition altered the political landscape. Before 2008, African-American voters were underrepresented in the electorate. In most elections, they made up substantially less than 20% of the voters even though they made up around 22% of the registered voters. Since Obama, African-Americans have consistently made up more than 20% of the electorate and African-American women are among the most reliable Democratic voters.
This year, North Carolina and the nation are seeing what happens when young people start to vote. Obama brought out younger voters in record numbers. Eighteen to 29 year-olds supported him by a whopping 50 points in NC, but they didn’t come back in the midterms of 2010 or 2014. I suspect when we get the final numbers this year, we’ll see a spike in younger voters who broke heavily for Democrats.
More importantly, those younger voters are getting older. They’ll become more regular voters as they take on responsibilities like kids and mortgages. Their allegiances still favor Democrats heavily and they’ll shift the electorate even more toward Democrats in the future.
In addition to younger voters and African-Americans, college educated voters, especially women, are abandoning the GOP. In suburbs where educated voters with families are relocating, Democrats won big. Voters who’ve historically supported Republicans voted for Democrats in places like North Raleigh and South Charlotte.
In contrast, Republicans are winning a larger share of voters where populations are declining but voters are more reliable. The GOP coalition is losing the urban business community and being reduced to older white voters without a college degree. Like the white educated women who are abandoning the GOP, white, non-college educated voters in rural areas have largely left the Democratic Party.
The polarization in North Carolina will continue. Urban and suburban voters, especially college educated ones, will increasingly support Democrats while rural white voters will support Republicans. In other words, key parts of the Democratic base are growing while key parts of the GOP base are declining. North Carolina will continue to be a competitive state for at least another decade but the electorate of the future will look a lot more like the one that elected Barack Obama than the one that elected Donald Trump.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >