30 days out from North Carolina's 2020 elections we now have greater perspective on what happened. Cut it and slice it any way you want, the elections were a disaster for Democrats who were optimistic to recapture government. Here are my five takeaways why Democrats did poorly in our state:
1. Trump showed up.
Filmmaker Woody Allen says 90 percent of success is just showing up. I'm pretty sure Donald Trump isn't a Woody Allen fan, but he certainly got the message. Hardly a week went by that Trump, a member of his family or Vice President Pence wasn't in our state. His rallies avoided large population centers, recognizing Trump's passionate supporters lived in rural areas. Biden's strategy hurt Democrats. He believed North Carolina's 15 electoral votes were important, but wouldn't determine the ultimate outcome, so he paid only token attention to us. Both candidates were right, but Trump's presence was important.
2. Trump voters grabbed his coattails and held on all the way down the ballot.
Usually, a large turnout isn't good for incumbents; it signals voters want change. Voters were motivated alright, but not for change. The Trump tide elevated Republicans all the way down the ballot. Normally we see "voter fatigue," meaning voters get tired and don't vote for races all the way to the end of the ballot. Not this year. Chris Cooper, Professor of Political Science at Western Carolina University, reports only three percent of those who voted for president failed to vote for the down-ballot race of State Treasurer, half the number from 2016. Columnist John Hood reports that a record 61 counties now have Republican-led County Commission majorities, even though 51 percent of the state's population resides in the 39 led by Democrats.
3. Democrats believed the polls and the media.
Pollsters predicted the presidential race and maybe the US Senate race would be close, but they counted on Governor Cooper to start the "blue wave," even boldly suggesting that one or both houses of the legislature could flip to Democratic control. Democrats, buoyed by the mainstream media who were echo chambers for the polls, were overconfident. They learned too late their wave was actually a red tsunami.
4. Even though they were outspent, Republicans outworked and outsmarted Democrats.
Hood reports Democrats vastly outspent Republicans, by two or three-to-one in many races, but the money didn't make the difference. Joe Biden only carried one-quarter of North Carolina counties, the larger more urban centers. Trump actually ate into Biden's margins in them and carried the seventy-five, mostly rural counties "bigly," as he says. Republicans held high energy rallies to activate voters and their well-oiled ground game completely swamped, Democrats, who demurred from knocking on doors because of the pandemic. Memo to Democrats: Retail politics still work. You have to work for the vote, not depend on TV or mailers.
5. Democrats didn't have a message.
Democrats didn't have a message that resonated, especially with white rural voters. Their main thrust was to beat Trump. They let Republicans frame them as supporters of looting and violence, ultra-liberal socialists like AOC, and people who wanted to defund the police. James Carville, President Clinton's campaign manager was so right when he said, "It's the economy, stupid." Republicans convinced voters they were best at managing our economy and they stood for law and order. Democrats didn't talk about the kitchen table issues voters cared about.
The end result is that our state remains split between urban and rural, Democrats and Republicans. We will continue to have a split state government that will result in more fights between the governor and legislature, with courts as arbiters. 2021 will be the year when the results of the controversial census will require North Carolina to redraw congressional, legislative and judicial districts. Say good-by to redistricting reform.
If you think we are largely back where we started, you aren't wrong.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN
, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues that airs on UNC-TV main channel Fridays at 7:30pm, Sundays 12:30pm and UNC North Carolina Channel Fridays at 10:00pm, Saturdays at 4:00pm and Sundays at 10:00am
. Contact Tom at NC Spin.