On Nov. 8, 2016 Donald Trump won North Carolina by 3.8 percent of the vote. That is more than the combined margins of victory from the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections combined.
This large of a victory for Trump flew in the face of what the New York Times deemed the “swingiest of swing states,” and the 5.8 percent victory of Republican incumbent Senator Burr over challenger Deborah Ross did little to change the impression that North Carolina was crouched more firmly in the Republican camp than it had been in years previous.
Local elections have not enjoyed the same fickle reputation that statewide races have in the last eight years, but they are still an important part of our state government. In 2016 the NC State House picked up six new Democratic members, and 12 new Republicans.
This leaves the balance split 45 to 72 in favor of the Republican Party in the house, while the State Senate favors the Republicans 34 to 15. This balance of partisan interests in the General Assembly is deeply canted towards Republicans, and likely will be until the next census.
Given the partisan gridlock on the state level and the larger-than-expected margins of victory in the Senate race and the presidential race, North Carolina seemed like a largely noncompetitive state in this election cycle, with Democratic victories spread thin over the night of November 8.
The legacy of North Carolina as a swing state was preserved in only one statewide arena in this election: the narrow victory of Roy Cooper (D) over incumbent Governor Pat McCrory (R).
Since elections for governor are held on a statewide basis in much the way that a senator or the presidential vote is chosen, it was irregular that North Carolina would see only one out of three offices fall out of line with the dominant Republican trends of this election cycle.
However, Cooper’s election is not necessarily a beacon of hope for those who want to see North Carolina turn back toward the Democratic Party: his margin of victory was so slim that it qualifies for a re-count of the vote, should Governor McCrory seek to clarify the results of this election.
The gubernatorial race had one other factor which separated it from either the senate race or the presidential vote; McCrory was coming into election season off a month’s long trend of critique and dissatisfaction with his handling of the state.
Citizens disgruntled with McCrory ranged from the well-heeled individuals of Huntersville and Cornelius who had opposed the governor’s plans to build a toll road, to residents along the Dan River still worried about the after-effects of coal-ash spills and most of the liberal population of North Carolina, angry about the civil unrest and economic damage that resulted from HB2.
With such a wide base of opposition, most observers predicted a fairly easy victory for Cooper on November 8. Those hopes were dashed, as McCrory maintained a lead through most of the night, and Cooper pulled ahead only early in the morning.
What this indicates for the future of North Carolina is not entirely clear. Even with a comparatively large margin of victory for Trump, NC and its 15 electoral votes are likely to feature heavily in the campaign strategies during future presidential elections.
Because North Carolina has been the battleground of several close statewide races in the past three election cycles, our state has become a focal point for national political attention.
Senate races in 2014 and 2016 both received attention for the highly competitive nature of the race and the amount of money spent by candidates – and if there’s one thing that politics is consistent on, it’s that money talks. Charlotte, NC was the host of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, though despite best efforts of the Democratic Party, the state swung for Romney by 2.03 percent.
This hyper-focus on North Carolina as a hotbed of political competition makes sense.
The state has several demographic factors which indicate traditional bases of support for each party; large rural areas that frequently rely on manufacturing or agriculture for the economy, a strong military presence and highly urbanized areas with high levels of social and racial diversity that have attracted highly-educated young professionals. So much of politics is marketing a message to appeal to voters, and with so many demographics represented in NC, political campaigns can set their ambitions high.
States that are considered to be ‘sure things’ for parties in every election are frequently neglected in political campaigns, as candidates operate (wisely or not) under an assumption that those electoral votes have already been secured.
In states like North Carolina candidates and parties worry that neglecting an election year will be what tips the state over to the opposing side of the political spectrum. Even those worries would not be enough to secure the state’s position as a battleground state year-to-year if it were not for the size of the population. Unlike some smaller states that have similar demographic characteristics, North Carolina has the potential to be a significant political presence on the east coast, which no candidate would reasonably let slip away.
What all of this means for the immediate future of NC is that, regardless of the overall partisan leanings of the state, we won’t miss out on the next batch of campaign ads during 2020.