There’s been a bit of gnashing of teeth among North Carolina Democrats over the election results. A number of people bemoaned the make up of the electorate. They seem to believe that a more progressive campaign with a more grassroots feel could have changed who voted, or at least motivated more Democratic voters.
That’s just not true. The electorate was relatively good for Democrats, especially for a midterm. African-Americans made up 21% of the voters, more than they’ve made up in decades. Wake and Orange Counties turned out at about 49%, five points higher than the state as a whole. Buncombe and Guilford voted at 47% and Durham at 45%. Mecklenburg was the big disappointment with only 39% turnout.
Overall, the Democratic turnout machine worked. As Nate Cohn of the New York Times noted, “Since 2010, turnout increased by 14 percent in North Carolina counties that voted for President Obama, but just 4 percent in counties that voted for Mitt Romney.” However, the electorate did not look like the one in 2012. In particular, it was older.
The dirty little secret of campaigns is that the political environment has more to do with deciding elections than anything a consultant or strategist can do. And the environment is a reflection of the collective emotional state of the country. This year, they were frustrated with the slow pace of the recovery, insecure about their personal situations and pessimistic about the future. Ebola and ISIS just amplified that uncertainty going down the stretch.
Smart campaigns read the environment and try to mitigate or amplify the impact. In the case of Hagan, they saw that the national environment was bad and they fought to focus the electorate on state issues. It almost worked, but the news cycle focused on beheadings of innocent Americans and the American victims of a West African epidemic. It was enough to push the wave that had already broken over the rest of country into North Carolina.
No message from the Hagan campaign could have reversed that wave. No innovative new media strategy would have dramatically increased turnout among millennials. Midterm electorates are going to be older with a turnout in the mid-forties, making a wave more difficult to repel for a party that depends upon younger voters.
That’s not to say there is nothing Democrats can do. They need a national message and strategy to reach white working-class voters. They should certainly beef up their new media presence. And they need to wrest control of the message and strategy away from the Washington-based consultants who would make the campaign about billionaires from Kansas instead of people from North Carolina.
Kay Hagan almost won by making this election about the General Assembly. John Edwards, the last North Carolina Democrat elected to the US Senate before Kay Hagan, won, in part, by covering incumbent Republican Lauch Faircloth with the waste from hog lagoons in eastern North Carolina. And finally, Jesse Helms stayed in the Senate for 30 years as much because of his attention to North Carolina issues as anything he did on the national stage.
I’m not saying every election needs to be localized. Some years, a national campaign may benefit Democrats. But I am saying that every campaign needs to be about the concerns voters already have instead of trying to invent concerns for them.
In North Carolina, Democrats did some things very right. They had a unified message that focused on the GOP cuts to education and tax breaks for the rich–two issues that were already troubling people across the state. They invested heavily in a field operation that dramatically increased their base voters. As a result, Democrats picked up three seats in the state house, a feat unmatched this cycle by any state with a Republican-controlled legislature.
It was a bad year for Democrats everywhere in the nation. In North Carolina, they did better than most of the country. As they argue over the results, they should remember what went right as well as what went wrong. They have an emerging infrastructure that should only get better. It needs to be nurtured, not scrapped because of a wave election.
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 >