What happened to North Carolina

by | Jun 9, 2013 | Democrats, Editor's Blog, NC Politics | 1 comment

If you’re interested in what has happened to North Carolina politically, you should read the article by Chris Kromm and Sue Sturgis that lays out a more comprehensive version of the state of things in the Old North State.


Over the past six months, pundits, columnists and interested observers have been asking, “What happened to North Carolina?” They are referring, of course, to the draconian, and often laughable, legislation moving through the state’s legislature. It’s a stark contrast to the progressive state that competed with Silicon Valley and Boston’s Route 128 for high-tech, high-paying jobs.

But there are other questions, too. Was Obama’s victory in 2008 an anomaly? Is North Carolina becoming more conservative? Will it be a battleground state in 2016?

Let’s start with the what happened question.

In 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign recognized an opportunity in North Carolina. African-Americans made up more than 20% of the registered voters but had been making up less than 18% of the electorate. In addition, the state was one of the fastest growing in the country with a large influx of people from more progressive states and a growing Hispanic population. The newcomers came with more Democratic leanings.

Prior the May 2008 primary, the Obama campaign began registration drives targeting African-American and younger voters. Their embrace of social media combined with their message of hope and change fueled a movement among 20-somethings tired of war and uneasy about their economic future. Total registration jumped 700,000 in North Carolina from 2004 to 2008.

The election was truly a perfect storm. Obama’s message could not have been more appropriate for a country facing an economic collapse and endless wars. His unprecedented field operation embraced new technology to zero in on likely supporters and put them into the polls. In contrast, John McCain’s campaign was as erratic as Obama’s was disciplined, leaving the GOP base uninspired and demoralized.

In addition, Obama was helped in North Carolina by a strong supporting cast. After struggling to find a candidate to challenge Sen. Elizabeth Dole, Democrats found Kay Hagan to be a perfect foil to the absentee Dole. Bev Perdue came out of a bruising primary but the combination of Hagan and Perdue brought in money and firepower from powerful interests groups like EMILY’s list, National Education Association and SEIU.

Obama won North Carolina by the narrowest of margins, 14,000 votes, but changed the perception of the state. Minority voters made up 23% of the electorate and voters under 30 increased their share by 4% over 2004. The changing Demographics of the state established North Carolina as a solidly purple state.

Then came 2010. Everything that went right for Democrats in 2008, went wrong in 2010. The economy that Obama was elected to fix was mired in the deepest recession since the Great Depression. The fight over health care reform had galvanized the reactionary Tea Party movement and motivated the GOP’s angry white base.

In North Carolina, the U. S. Senate race to challenge Richard Burr ended in a run-off that didn’t take place until the end of June, leaving nominee Elaine Marshall cash-strapped just four months before the general election. As the political environment deteriorated nationally for Democrats, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and it’s progressive allies went into bunker mode and focused virtually all of their resources on incumbent Senators in an effort to protect their majority.

With little help from the top of the ticket, Democrats down-ballot scrambled to protect themselves. However, the national wave was just too strong. The excitement that had fueled a 70% turnout in 2008 was gone and only 44% of the registered voters turned out. Angry white voters, many who had skipped the 2008 election, showed up at the polls while many of the idealistic younger voters stayed home.

Democrats lost majorities in both houses of the legislature in a redistricting year. A quirk in North Carolina denies the Governor veto power over the new districts so Republicans had their way with the North Carolina electorate. They packed African-Americans and Democrats into a few districts, leaving very few swing districts and the certainty of a GOP majority for at least the next few cycles.

If North Carolina Democrats suffered a Republican wave in 2010, they faced a meltdown in 2012. Governor Bev Perdue never managed to get her approval ratings out of the basement but waited until January 2012 to announce her plans not to run for re-election. Such short notice left Democrats scrambling and several jumped into a sprint of a primary. In the midst of it, the state party suffered a sexual harassment scandal that just reminded voters of the numerous petty scandals that had plagued two administrations of Democratic Governors. Lt. Governor Walter Dalton emerged as the nominee, broke and battered, and never really became competitive with the better financed and organized McCrory.

Through it all, though, Obama seemed to stay competitive in the state. Polls throughout the summer showed the President and Romney tied or within the margin of error. When it was over, Obama lost but North Carolina was the second closest state in the nation for the second election cycle in a row.

While Democrats lost solidly two cycles in a row, trends emerged that show the future of North Carolina. Even with the low turnout in 2010, African-Americans still made up over 20% of the electorate. Between 2008 and 2012 the Hispanic registration doubled and Obama won 68% of that vote. According to Pew, only 24% of the state’s Hispanic population is eligible to vote but that will change with time. In addition, 51% of the votes cast in Congressional races were for Democrats despite Republicans winning 9 of the 13 Congressional Districts.

So, yes. North Carolina will be competitive in 2016. The state will continue to grow and the new demographics will favor Democrats. Unless Republicans change their policies and philosophy, they will likely be a solid minority party in the state sometime in the next 10 years.

The only caveat to that conclusion would be if the regressive policies floating through the legislature scare off businesses and significantly slow growth. They’ve made sharp cuts to the public university system that has been a major economic engine and they’re curbing the authority of the urban areas where businesses want to locate. So the question comes down to, how badly are Republicans willing to damage the state to retain their advantage?




1 Comment

  1. Chris Telesca

    It was not all about the campaigns or their field operations. Remember that folks were sick of Bush, and saw McCain-Palin as at least 4 more years of the same.

    The Democratic Party had been energized during Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign and then again when he got elected DNC Chair. Dean’s 50 state strategy (and closer to home – NCDP Chair Jerry Meek’s strategy) engaged the base of the Party and got them out the door and active: organizing precincts that could engage voters in GOTV programs leading up to the elections. We proved that in 2006, and again in 2008. Indeed, Barack Obama gave a great deal of credit to Dean’s 50 state strategy for his victory.

    But the Obama Campaign was incredibly selfish in how they operated in NC and elsewhere. The NCDP told counties that they had to come up with their own strategic plan for the 2008 races. Wake County had one of the first and best plans, and it was used by the NCDP as a model for other counties to follow. We had a record number of precincts organized and record numbers of volunteers ready to participate in a plan that almost every down-ballot campaign bought into.

    Then all that stopped dead in June 2008 when Obama appeared to have the nomination sewed up. Here in Wake County, we were prevented from printing our slate cards and voter guides that were an integral part of our summer canvassing operation – and told it was a violation of federal campaign law. Oh – but give OFA the names and contact info for ALL your key volunteers. We said we’d do that under two conditions: 1) that those key volunteers would not be pulled away from doing their jobs under the strategic plan (identify other volunteers for precinct-based GOTV efforts including poll greeting); and 2) that after the election, OFA would give us a list of THEIR volunteers in Wake County to be integrated into Partybuilding we’d need to do to work on the 2009 municipal and school board elections.

    We gave them the list of Wake vols, and then we noticed several funny things happening. Right after Labor Day – we were asked if we were going to pay anyone to hand out slate cards and voter guides. When we said no – we were told there was no problem printing up as many slate cards and voter guides as we wanted. How come they couldn’t have told us that in late June? It’s because OFA didn’t want to compete with GOTV canvassing for the whole slate of candidates – it needed to be ALL about Obama.

    Then we noticed that precinct chairs and vice chairs started to get bogged-down in OFA campaign activities to the extent that most claimed they couldn’t even work their own precincts on Election Day – their OFA work was just too important! We had to tell them that we’d remove them from their offices if they didn’t do what they were elected to do – and that they ALL voted to approve the strategic plan in May 2008. Most of them got with the program, otherwise there is no telling how many other down-ballot candidates would have lost in 2008 (because Obama did not have long coat-tails).

    Then of course AFTER the 2008 general election, party activists were screwed royally by OFA when they refused to give out the OFA volunteer contact info. Plouffe wrote in his book that they worried about giving out the info for the 20% of OFA vols who weren’t Democrats. But they also didn’t worry about the 80% who were – and the effect of sucking all the life out of the local Democratic Party operations during the 2008 race, and then starving them of resources going into the future! Do you know how many “Obama Mamas” had signs in their yards for Republican candidates for 2009 and beyond? Obama’s post-partisan touchey-feely “Hope” worked for him, but not for many other people.

    Want proof? We started LOSING big races right after November 2008 – races that we should have won and needed to win in order for Obama to have the majority he needed to turn his promises (and any of the rest of our platform he felt inclined to support). A Democrat lost the GA Senate runoff to a Republican who ran that runoff campaign as much about being against Obama as anything else. Democrats lost the VA and NJ Gubernatorial races for pretty much the same reason. And a Democrat lost Teddy Kennedy’s senate seat in Massachusetts – which was unforgivable! One big factor in all those races was the weakening of the Democratic Party structure making it unable to help in those races – all to build-up OFA. And OFA would clearly not get involved in some of those key races, or not get involved in any meaningful way until it was TOO LATE!

    Many of us could see it coming going into 2010. It was a historic ass-kicking, and many folks felt it was related to the weakening of the Democratic Party and the selfishness of OFA. And we knew that if our party leaders didn’t stand up and demand that OFA stop destroying the Democratic Party that we might lose big-time in 2010. And sure enough – that happened in NC. And I’ve got e-mails from some of our state legislators asking me if it was possible there was some election irregularities – because they were told by the so-called professional campaign consultants and other workers that we’d only lose either the Senate or the House but not both. WRONG! And the margins were such that the GOP would be able to buy-off DINO Dems (as they did) for redistricting and other matters.

    Add to that the selfishness of waiting till the last minute to decide that she wasn’t going to run for Governor again (and then not coughing up her campaign loot to help out Walter Dalton or Linda Coleman), and you had the “Perfect Storm” for the Republicans: an even bigger (and veto-proof) majority in the NCGA and a governor who would be appointing lots of his cronies (including 3 out of the 5 SBOE members and 2 out of the 3 CBOE members).

    Now, if OFA was so good at doing at winning elections, what happened here in NC? OFA was on the ground twice in 2008 – once for the primary and once again for the general election. But they were on the ground starting much earlier for the 2012 elections – they were on the ground in 2011 from what I recall. They had many more people following the OFA playbook, so what happened to take Obama from winning by only 14K votes in 2008 (along with the other Dems who won in 2008) to losing by 97K votes in 2012? Dalton lost by 500K votes – disgraceful!

    One of the big problems that I saw was that this whole state Democratic Party lost its perspective and marbles over the DNC Convention being held in Charlotte. Too many people were focusing on the tail-gate party before the big game than on the game itself. It should be noted that both parties stuck their conventions in states they wanted to win for their Presidential candidate – and both those states went for the other guy.

    So I find that we lost big-time in 2010 and 2012 due to OFA and the weakening of the Democratic Party. And to 2012 I add the DNC Convention. Now we have to rebuild the Democratic Party from the grass-roots up. Organize every precinct possible. Raise money from larger numbers of small donors. And when we hire people for the NCDP, let’s make sure have both the skills and maturity and professionalism to work for the Democratic Party to not only get the job done – but not to embarrass us (or themselves) when they work for the Party.

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