Republicans like to think North Carolina is a solidly red state that occasionally elects Democrats to Congress, and particularly the US Senate, with Republicans dominant in the state legislature since the 2010 election, and barely lost the governor’s race in 2016. But Democrats think NC is a decidedly purple state, for whom solid Republican rule of the governorship and the state legislature 2012-2016 was an aberration.
The state is growing rapidly. Both parties increase their vote totals after each national election. North Carolina’s population has grown one percent a year, from 9.5 million in 2010 to (projected) 10.6 million by 2020. Nearly half the state’s population wasn’t born in the state. With so many newcomers, the state does seem to be up for grabs politically, unpredictable.
The state legislature and US congressional delegation are decidedly red. That may change when gerrymandered districts have to be redrawn for 2020, as ordered by the courts. Though Republicans won just 54% of the total NC popular vote in 2016, they took 64% of the state legislative seats due to gerrymandering and gained a veto-proof majority. Out of 50 state senators, only 15 are Democrats. Out of 120 seats in the state house, only 46 are Democrats. For Congress, Republicans in 2016 won 53% of the total votes in the state, but control 77% of the 13 US House seats, with only three of the seats going to Democrats.
In 2016, Clinton-Kaine lost NC with 46.17% or 2,189,316 favorable ballots cast, 11,000 more than Obama-Biden won in 2012. Trump won NC with 49.8% or 2,362,631 favorable ballots cast, 92,000 more than Romney-Ryan in 2012. Trump-Pence beat Clinton-Kaine by just 173,315 votes in NC, out of nearly 4.8 million cast. If less than four out of every 100 voters could have been persuaded to vote for Clinton, she would have won the state.
The presidential election of 2008 was the optimal political environment for national Democrats in NC since 1976 when Jimmy Carter of Georgia won the state with 55% of the vote. Obama-Biden won NC with 50.8% of the vote, or 2,142,651 ballots, compared to 49.38% for McCain-Palin or 2,128,474 ballots. That was a difference of about 14,000 votes.
NY Times graphic. In 2008, Obama won about one-third of NC counties, generally the most populous ones.
In 2012, Obama-Biden lost NC with 48.35%, or 2,178,391 favorable ballots cast. In other words, Obama-Biden received about 35,000 more votes in 2012 when they lost the state than in 2008 when they won it. Romney-Ryan garnered 2,270,395 ballots or 41,921 more than McCain-Palin in NC. Romney-Ryan beat Obama-Biden in NC in 2012 by about 90,000 votes.
The Libertarian vote was 25,722 in NC in 2008, more than enough to swing the state to McCain-Palin if the majority of libertarians voted for the Republican. But Libertarians won 44,515 votes in NC in 2012, not enough to change the Electoral College vote for president.
Key Swing Counties: Ballotpedia pinpoints six out of 100 North Carolina counties as bellwethers or pivot counties that voted for Obama twice but switched to Trump in 2016: Bladen, Gates, Granville, Martin, Richmond, and Robeson.
Voter Turnout: 68.9% of registered voters turned out in NC in 2016; 68.40% turned out in 2012, and 69.53% turned out in 2008. But in non-presidential years, voter turnout in NC plunged to 15.79% in 2014; 14.41% in 2010; 11.92% in 2006; 21.21% in 2002; and 17.71% in 1998 when John Edwards’ surprisingly won the Senate seat.
Ticket-splitters. Prior to 1968, North Carolina was part of the Solid South, almost always choosing Democrats over Republicans in elections since the Civil War. Since 1968, North Carolinians have more often than not split their ballots, voting for Republicans for president but Democrats for governor and/or senator.
Downballot swing voters: A Democrat held one of the US Senate seats from NC 1968-74; 1974-80; 1986-1992; 1998-2004. The legendary Jesse Helms was elected a Republican senator in 1972 and retired in 2002. A Republican, Elizabeth Dole, was elected to succeed Helms, but served only one term, losing in 2008 to Democrat Kay Hagan, who lost to Thom Tillis in 2014.
(The exceptions to ticket-splitting were from 1972-1976, when a maverick Republican governor, Jim Holshouser, was elected; and 1980-86, when the state had two Republican senators, and a Republican governor, Jim Martin, from 1984-1992. The state has had two Republican senators since 2015. The next opportunity to replace the junior senator, Thom Tillis, will come in 2020, but he has so far established a sufficiently moderate record that he will be difficult to beat. Breaking with his party base, he has, for example, sponsored legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller from firing by President Trump).
In 2012, the state for only the third time since the beginning of the 20th century elected a Republican governor, for a single term. Pat McCrory styled himself as a moderate but was pushed to the right by the super-majority Republican state legislature. He lost by a few thousand votes to Democrat Roy Cooper in 2016.
In 2008, Democrat Bev Perdue won the governor’s race with 50.2% of the vote, or 2,121,320 ballots, compared to 46.9% for McCrory, or 1,980,768 ballots. That year, Democrat Kay Hagan won the US Senate race with 52.7% of the vote or 2,225,961 ballots, compared to 44.2% or 1,867,269 ballots for the incumbent, Elizabeth Dole. Hagan won 102,571 more votes than Obama, but he won 2,070 more votes than Perdue. That was a year when the libertarian candidates for president, Bob Barr; senator, Chris Cole; and governor, Michael Munger, were almost responsible for the Democratic victories in the state.