If the Democratic Party is to regain its status as North Carolina’s majority faction, it must represent all the people in the state. Too many North Carolinians have come to view the party as an Other, a monstrous, unknowable alien entity which they do not understand and to which they cannot relate. In so far as advocates of a “100-county campaign” seek to restore trust in the Democratic Party among red-county voters, they are performing a civic service. But that does not make their strategy electorally wise.
The 100-county debate is relevant today because state Senator Jeff Jackson has made it the cornerstone of his U.S. Senate campaign. Everyday his twitter feed is full of dispatches from various corners of the state, always presented with an upbeat enthusiasm and supreme confidence that his strategy will bear fruit. Most recently he embarked on a swing through Western North Carolina, hitting lovely countryside counties such as Graham and Cherokee. He’s demonstrating energy and determination to reach the state’s voters.
But here’s the problem: for all their struggles and importance to policy, sojourns to places like Graham and Cherokee are not a productive endeavor for a Democrat seeking statewide office. Cherokee County gave 77% of the vote to Donald Trump in 2020, to 21.9% for now-President Biden. In Graham, Biden did not even break 20% of the vote. These are deep-red counties that have been trending toward Republicans for decades, and for demographic reasons both are likely to continue their rightward migrations. Even the argument that Democrats can gain by “losing by less” does not apply in this case. Graham County cast 4,615 votes in 2020. Getting to 40%, a good target for Democrats in tough areas, would net only 92 votes, not even enough to close the gap in a election as tight as Jackson rival Cheri Beasley’s photo-finish race for Chief Justice.
The story is similar across vast swaths of North Carolina. In the Mountains, Foothills and western Piedmont, county after county delivered as much 81% of the vote to Donald Trump. Given partisan polarization, not even the most vigorous outreach program could draw significant numbers of white voters to the Democratic column. And for every day a candidate such as Jackson spends in such places, he (or she) sacrifices time that could be used cultivating voters in blue, vote-rich counties or registering new voters in the state’s most diverse precincts. Either way would be a far more efficient investment of resources than holding showy town halls in places where the Democratic Party is a spent force.
Some politicians believe that they are so persuasive they can get any voter to agree with them if they are just given time face to face. This, frankly, is narcissism. Social psychologists have found that people usually react to contrary arguments by battening down the hatches and coming up with new reasons to stand by their preexisting views. People as distrusted as politicians are even less likely to have a persuasive effect on voters who are dead set on voting for the other side. Further, the political forces driving traditionalist whites toward Trumpism have been extant for nearly 60 years, and there is almost no logical reason to believe these trends will go into reverse. To be clear, these voters matter and deserve respect. But as Barry Goldwater said, you have to go hunting where the ducks are.
North Carolina Democrats have struggled immensely in recent federal elections. And in each case, they have attempted a strategy based on appealing to the electorate as it is. That’s not working. Instead of seeing the electorate as a static composition, they should seek to transform the political landscape with greater turnout and new voters. When they decide where they expend their resources, they should base their choices on a clear-eyed return on investment. A selfie-friendly tour across territory that is extremely inhospitable to Democrats is not a wise approach to winning this election.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.