Trends in NC House Districts, 2008-2012

by | Jul 23, 2013 | Carolina Strategic Analysis, Features

This is a post that examines partisan trends in state legislative districts based on the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. Now that Daily Kos Elections has crunched the numbers for the 2012 elections by legislative district, we have a plethora of data to analyze.

When Republicans drew their fair and legal maps, they crammed as many Democrats into as few districts as possible, leaving the other districts redder. With the new maps, Republicans now have supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, and last week a three-judge panel ruled that the maps were legally sound. It looks fairly certain that these are these maps will continue to be in use through the end of the decade. That said, some Democrats are optimistic that gerrymandering a purple state can only work for so long, that by the end of the decade many of these districts will be more competitive and the Republican majorities more tenuous.

Is this line of thinking correct? Comparing the change in the margin for the presidential race from 2008 to 2012 in the individual districts could shed some light on which districts are likely to become more competitive, or less competitive, in the near future.

Our methodology is simple: we look at the margin of victory in the 2008 presidential contest, then adjust it against the national average. This yields a number, PVI, which represents a district’s partisanship. We repeat the exercise for 2012. We compare the two PVIs to discern any interesting trends which could benefit one party over the other in the future.

A potential criticism is that looking at presidential-level data only will skew our rankings. It is best, they say, to look at other statewide elections to render an accurate PVI. To some extent, this criticism is valid, and to have conducted this exercise a decade ago would have produced meaningless results. However, legislative elections have increasingly mirrored presidential elections, and an analysis based on presidential-level results is interesting in itself. Even if the rankings of the individual districts overlooks historic voting patterns in some areas, the relative partisan trends are still informative.

That said, we proceed to the spreadsheet below. The columns are simple enough: first there is the district number, followed by the current occupant of this district. Members representing districts voting for the opposite party in 2012 are represented with asterisks. In the next column are the 2008 presidential election results, followed by the PVI (the presidential margin compared to the national average), then a ranking based on the 2008 results. Then follows the 2012 results, a new PVI based on these results, and a new partisan ranking.

The rankings are fairly arbitrary, but give a good indication as to the relative partisanship of the individual districts. A number with an absolute value between 0 and 5 is a toss-up district. From 5 to 10 indicates a definite partisan lean, 10 to 15 is strongly partisan, and any number above 15 is solid for either one party or the other.

Democrats in Romney Districts
Winkie Wilkins (HD-2)
Paul Tine (HD-6)
William Brisson (HD-22)
Ken Waddell (HD-46)
Joe Sam Queen (HD-119)

These districts abound with conservative Democrats. The Democrat who represents the strongest Romney district is Ken Waddell, whose district lies in parts of Robeson, Bladen, and Columbus counties. However, Paul Tine in District 6 is probably the most vulnerable to a Republican challenge.

Republicans in Obama Districts
Tom Murry (HD-41)
Charles Jeter (HD-92)

Only two Republicans represent districts that voted for Barack Obama in 2012. HD-41 and HD-92 are both suburban districts located in Wake and Mecklenburg counties, respectively. Obama’s win in HD-41 was narrow, but he carried HD-92 by more than six points. Only candidates with a large amount of crossover appeal are able to win in these competitive districts.

District with Strongest Democratic Trend
The district that trended Democratic the most from 2008 to 2012 is HD-27, held by Democrat Michael Wray. District 27 comprises Northampton and Halifax counties, and the strong Democratic trend was due to higher black turnout. Because it’s almost impossible for black turnout to increase any further, this hardly portends a long-term trend, and even if it did it wouldn’t matter – Republicans have no chance here in any case.

District with Strongest Democratic Trend With Republican Incumbent
This is probably a more relevant statistic, because to take back the House Democrats need to defeat Republican incumbents, not just build higher margins in their base districts. In this case, it’s HD-108, held by John Torbett (R-Gaston). But District 108 is currently ranked as Solid Republican, so the Democratic trend here will probably take a long time to get results. Since the trend can be pinned down to higher black turnout in Gastonia, it’s questionable whether there’s even a trend at all.

District with Strongest Republican Trend
The district with the strongest Republican trend is HD-90, currently held by Republican Sarah Stevens. HD-90 is based out of Surry County and parts of Wilkes County. Again, the trend here is probably temporal and is probably a function of Obama’s unsuitability for the district rather than any underlying political trends. Since HD-90 is already solid Republican, the political consequences of a true trend are nonexistent.

District with Strongest Republican Trend With Democratic Incumbent
If Republicans are looking to further expand their majority in the House, they should take a strong look at Joe Sam Queen, who currently occupies HD-119. According to the data, HD-119 trended slightly Republican in 2012, and Queen only won by a narrow margin in 2012. If this trend is not merely temporary, then this district will be tough for Democrats to hold over the next decade.

Most Static District
This is the district whose PVI changed the least from 2008 to 2012. This title belongs to HD-41, held by Tom Murry, only one of two Republicans to hold a district that voted for Barack Obama. In 2012, HD-41 trended only 0.02% to the Republican Party. In 2008, District 41 was 2.42 points to the right of the national average, in 2012 it was 2.44. Obviously, this is a very competitive district and the data points to it staying that way.

The respective trends in the legislative districts reflect the base strategy pursued by both parties in North Carolina in 2012. Overall, Democratic districts, especially those with large African American districts, drifted further to the left, while Republican districts became more Republican. Should these trends continue, then Democrats may find themselves shut out of the House until the end of the decade.
When Republicans drew the current districts, they packed Democrats into as few districts as possible, making the other districts more competitive for Republicans. In doing so, they also shifted the battleground for control of the state legislature. Under non-partisan maps, this battle would be fought in suburban districts in the state’s larger counties. Instead, to gain control Democrats will have to encroach on some unfriendly territory – Republican-leaning districts in exurban areas with few swing voters. It would be helpful if these were the districts showing signs of a Democratic trend. Instead, the districts that are trending Democratic are mostly those where Democrats are already guaranteed of victory.
Of course, in statewide elections this doesn’t matter. A vote is a vote, no matter where one lives. But under a district system, location is everything. Even though North Carolina as a whole is gradually moving toward the Democrats, under the new maps this trend is confined mostly to districts that are already solidly Democrat. If these trends hold, then it’s unlikely that Democratic prospects of taking back the House will improve substantially through the end of the decade.


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