Notes from a Battleground State: Why is North Carolina Blue?

Politics, Presidential Elections, US Elections, US Politics

When discussing Presidential politics, the Old North State rarely rates a mention.  As part of the “Old South”, one of the most homogenous geographic regions in United States, Republican candidates have come to expect that North Carolina will follow the lead of its more conservative cousins to the south.  An AP article on swing states mentioned North Carolina in passing saying

And, the Republican has found himself having to defend GOP turf in North Carolina after Obama spent a couple of months running ads and dispatching workers to the state in hopes that blacks and young voters would help him prevail. McCain initially ignored the Obama action but recently countered with his own ads and staffers. He still has an edge there, and an Obama victory will be difficult.

And back in August, The Economist wrote

When the Obama campaign announced that it would contest the state, it was seen as a feint: a way to force Mr McCain to spend precious time and money in what should be a safe spot for him. Chris McClure, the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, dismisses swing-state chatter as hype peddled by the other side. “Voters are smart,” he says. “You have to have more than a speech to win this state.” Even Mr Obama’s supporters are sceptical of the suggestion. If he wins here, they say, the national election will not be a close one.

Is North Carolina really that red?  You would certainly get that impression looking at the 2004 election results.  Bush won by 12.5% or 440,000 votes in an election where the Democratic VP candidate was a NC Senator!  But if you look a little deeper down the ticket, another picture emerges.  Even back in June, the Raleigh News and Observer discussed some of the complex dynamics in NC that could come into play during the election.

The Illinois senator starts the fall race with advantages that no recent Democratic presidential candidate has had in North Carolina. Having campaigned extensively across the state, Obama has built a powerful grass-roots organization here, with about 15,000 volunteers, and has generated intense interest among blacks and young voters.  Moreover, there is a Democratic tide running in the country because of dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq, President Bush’s unpopularity and a troubled economy.

If you don’t look at Presidential politics, North Carolina is much more conflicted.  Voter registration in NC has always favored Democrats from the days after segregation when Republicans were pariahs and people would rather “vote for a yellow dog before voting Republican.”  Many registered Democrats are Republicans who just can’t bring themselves to change the party registration of their fathers and grandfathers.  Still, the numbers are striking.

In January of 2004, the Democrats had a registration advantage of 659,000 voters.  The 2004 election brought another half million voters onto the rolls, almost evenly split between the parties, so that the Democratic advantage had risen to 672,000 by November of 2004 … but Kerry/Edwards lost by close to half a million votes.  But when they aren’t voting for a President, NC voters do vote Democratic.  The governor’s office has been in Democratic hands for sixteen years.  The state legislature is also Democratic and home to some laws that would make any liberal proud.  The roads in NC are paid for with one of the highest gasoline taxes in the South.  It also has one of the highest income tax rates and a forced municipal annexation law that has effectively halted urban blight.  Six of its thirteen congressmen are Democrats. While the rural areas are as conservative as anywhere in the South and North Carolina’s huge military population at Fort Bragg and Camp Lejune has been reliably Republican ever since President Reagan raised military pay scales so that servicemen could get off food stamps, the urban areas around Raleigh and Charlotte with their high concentrations of financial and technical jobs are equally liberal, full of highly educated professionals and activist college students.  The tobacco fields of eastern North Carolina are just a short drive from Research Triangle.  Basically, North Carolina is part Mississippi and part California.  In a sign of a true split personality, North Carolina elected populist John Edwards and arch conservative Jesse Helms to the Senate at the same time.

2008 didn’t start out much differently than 2004.  The Democrats started the year with slightly less than a 600,000 registration advantage, loosing ground from 2005.  But the McCain team has ignored North Carolina while the Obama team has been hitting the state hard since it became obvious that it would play a key role in the Democratic primary race.  Additionally, the state Democratic Party has historically been well organized while the state Republicans tend towards extremism.  If there is one state where the Obama campaign’s tactic of increasing registration has paid dividends, it’s North Carolina.

NC Voter Registration since 2007

Obama’s field operation has pushed new voter registration hard, driving the Democratic registration advantage to close to 800,000.  Unlike legacy Democrats, it is reasonable to assume that these new Democrats are for real.  Additionally, independent voter registration has risen from 1.17 million to 1.33 million voters in 2008.  An independent voter can vote either side of the ticket in the primaries, so there is a good incentive not to declare for a party.  And it’s not just minority voters that are signing up either.  Since the beginning of the year, White voter roles have grown by 217,000, Blacks by 141,000 and Hispanics by 17,000.  All those voters aren’t Obama voters, but that registration difference just about covers the Kerry deficit from 2004.  Add in some discontent in the military about repeated deployments and the shabby treatment of veterans, some economic worries in the banking industry, high gas prices and a general sense that we are going the wrong way in this country and McCain has a lot to worry about.  North Carolina is feeling awfully blue.



  1. nimh  •  Oct 10, 2008 @7:01 am

    while the state Republicans tend towards extremism.

    Wow, that link’s a bit of a timewarp. Those were the days, eh? If you look at McCain’s ads now, which are almost 100% negative…

    It would be an interesting link to bring back up if or when the McCain campaign goes beyond the Ayers ads, and starts hitting the Wright connection too in its ads or speeches. But even as it stands now it’s a pretty damning reminder: even the McCain of the primaries, it seems, would have condemned today’s McCain’s ads.

  2. engineer  •  Oct 10, 2008 @3:09 pm

    I saw an ad yesterday that talked about Ayers, but had a picture of Wright in the background.