For years, North Carolina Democrats have predicted an imminent blue shift in the state. Demographics were supposed to be the driving force of the state’s trend into the Democratic column. First the model was Virginia; more recently, Democrats have taken Georgia as an inspiration. But for over a decade since Barack Obama’s 2008 victory, the bluing of the Tar Heel State has been a frustrated hope.
In truth, North Carolina has not trended blue in the last three presidential elections. Each time, the state voted three points to the right of the country as a whole, or, in the terminology used by elections analysts, R+3. Rural voters were the main barrier to a Democratic trend: in reaction to Barack Obama’s presidency, whites in the small towns and rural areas of the state shifted far to the right. That difficulty with the state’s large rural population (3-million strong) convinced me that the state’s blue hopes would continue to be deferred for at least a decade.
But what if it is precisely the rural challenge that indicates the state’s political transformation will come to pass in spite of it all? The fact is that rural Republican turnout has been on an unsustainable trajectory. In 2016, Republican voters in the state turned out at a stunning 81% rate. According to almost all observers, the staggering level of Republican participation was driven by these voters’ ecstatic love of Donald J. Trump. Without the old autocrat on the ballot, GOP turnout is likely to fall downward to more traditional levels.
Meanwhile, the state’s growing urban areas continue to trend leftward. The mega-counties of Wake and Mecklenburg are now Democratic strongholds from one county line to another. Further out in the traditionally deep-red territory of the exurbs, Democrats made small-but-meaningful gains between 2016 and 2020. This is not just an artifact of better national performance by Joe Biden. White rural counties continued their decades-long trend toward becoming Republican monoliths at the same time that the urban cores consolidated for Democrats and the exurbs moved to the left.
So, the fundamentals of the state are promising for Democrats, not only in the long term but as soon as the next election cycle. The growing parts of the state are trending blue as predicted, while Republican turnout rates that are unlikely to be replicated without Donald Trump on the ballot keep a brittle GOP narrowly ahead. When Donald Trump is off the ballot–as inevitably he will be, even if it takes until 2028–the state’s underlying demographics could punch through and send North Carolina into the Democratic column.
Democrats can expedite this change by beating Republicans at their own turnout-driven game. As Gary Pearce noted some weeks ago, 500,000 eligible African American voters remain unregistered in the state. If registered and mobilized, they would provide an immediate boost to Democrats–and not just in urban areas. Such a strategy could immediately begin to even the scales between Democratic and Republican turnout and, by removing that factor from the contest, allow the state’s demographic changes to function as the deciding factor in elections as soon as 2022.
The case for Democratic pessimism is evident in a decade’s worth of election results. It may even be correct. But there are countervailing winds already blowing across the political landscape, and more yet to be unleashed.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.