As North Carolina has emerged as one of the most closely-watched swing states, we wanted to do a deep dive analyzing some of its downballot trends. Looking at the Gubernatorial races over the past few cycles, a fascinating picture of a fluid state comes together.
During the previous three Gubernatorial campaigns, one constant has been former Gov. Pat McCrory. McCrory’s stylistic transformation was just as interesting as the shifting internal politics of his state. Running initially as an ‘Eisenhower Republican’ with an independent streak, by the end of his tenure, he was seen as a partisan who became an unlikely champion of social conservatives.
Out of office after a single term, McCrory was essentially caught between two coalitions. In his 2008 campaign, he came out on the losing side to a Democrat who was, from an electoral perspective, the last of her kind; she was able to rally eastern North Carolinians back to the party of Jackson in a way that hasn’t since been replicated. Running as an incumbent in 2016, McCrory was undone by a challenger who won, in large part, due to his strength with the state’s more ascendant suburban bloc.
Given his unique place in North Carolina’s realignment, McCrory’s electoral history offers an insightful avenue into understanding the state’s political changes.
After serving as mayor of the state’s largest city, Charlotte, since 1995, Pat McCrory ran for Governor in 2008. Though Charlotte was a blue-trending area, ‘Mayor Pat’ was popular; as a Republican, he would routinely win in landslides.
Despite his impressive resume as the entrenched mayor of a booming, New South city, McCrory was not the choice of much of his party’s leadership that year. Republican heavyweights in the legislature were supporting State Sen. Fred Smith. Though Smith hailed from Johnston County, an exurban county near Raleigh, even several prominent Charlotte-area legislators endorsed him over their city’s favorite son; examples were Sen. Bob Rucho and Rep. Ruth Samuelson.
In addition to the regional and hierarchical conflict, there were stylistic nuances distinguishing McCrory and Smith. McCrory framed himself as a pragmatic reformer; he ran on ideas such as making the (notoriously slow) state DMV more customer-friendly. Smith seemed to have a more cut-and-dry platform, emphasizing smaller government and social conservatism.
Primary polling showed McCrory with a slight but consistent edge, and on election day, he beat Smith by 9%:
Working against Smith was that he had a base in eastern North Carolina; this region is historically Democratic (more on that later), so he had fewer registered Republicans to draw from. McCrory on the other hand, took almost 80% in Mecklenburg County (Charlotte) and dominated in the suburban, GOP voter-rich counties around it. The Smith campaign also invested in the Asheville region, but McCrory’s strength in the Triad (the Greensboro/Winston-Salem area) more than canceled it out.
Interestingly, this seemed to mirror another historical Republican primary. In 1972, Jim Holshouser became the state’s first GOP Governor since Reconstruction. Before he won the general election, though, he likewise had a competitive primary. Hailing from Boone (where Appalachian State is located), Holshouser ran as a ‘mountain moderate’. His opponent in the primary was Jim Gardner (R). Gardner was considerably more conservative, and closer to the Jesse Helms faction of the party. However, like Smith in 2008, Gardner was an eastern conservative candidate who fell short:
Getting back to 2008, now that McCrory was the Republican nominee, he was in a very close contest with the sitting Lieutenant Governor, Bev Perdue. Perdue had been serving in Raleigh, in one capacity or another, since 1991, providing a contrast to McCrory’s position as an outsider. On a personal level, Perdue was warm and likable, almost grandmotherly, but as a resident, I recall her running a bland campaign.
As I lived in suburban south Charlotte at the time, it seemed like everyone there was voting for Mayor Pat. I had one relative, for instance, who was supporting then-Senator Obama for President, but when I asked her about the Governor’s race she said “All I know is that man [McCrory] has done great things for this city.”
While McCrory was a strong candidate in his own right, he couldn’t overcome President Obama’s effort, further up the ballot. In 2008, North Carolina voted Democratic for President for the first time since 1976; unprecedented turnout in the urban areas propelled President Obama to a narrow win there:
During her days in the state legislature, Perdue represented the New Bern area, along the state’s Atlantic Coast. Her personal vote there, coupled with Obama’s urban turnout operation, helped her to overcome McCrory’s crossover appeal in the Charlotte metro area:
This result was full of interesting regionalisms. For instance, Perdue’s home county, Craven, went to McCain by 12%, but she carried it by 16%. Another example was Columbus County; nestled in southeastern NC, it’s known for its strong Yellow Dog history. McCain carried Columbus by 8%, but Perdue crushed McCrory 65/33 there.
On the flip side, McCrory had strong crossover appeal in Mecklenburg County, but fell just 337 votes short of carrying it. Still quite impressive, considering Obama trounced McCain there by 24%. My precinct in suburban south Charlotte was ground zero for this; it gave McCain 57%, but gave Mayor Pat 74%. McCrory held up well in other urban counties, too. In Wake County (Raleigh), he cut McCain’s deficit from 14.5% to 6%.
Geographically, Perdue’s win was a throwback to decades before. When North Carolina became a truly competitive two-party state, around the 1960’s, Democrats would post huge margins in the east, which was often enough to overwhelm the ancestral Republican strength in the Piedmont. President Kennedy’s 4% win over Nixon in 1960 is a textbook example of this:
Regionally, as southern whites moved towards the GOP, Democrats became increasingly reliant on minority voters in urban areas. North Carolina was no exception to this trend; larger metro counties, such as Mecklenburg and Forsyth, gave Democrats increasingly better margins, while coastal counties, like Carteret and Brunswick, moved away from their Jacksonian roots. In the 2008 Governor’s race, Perdue threaded this needle pretty well; she had a strong eastern personal vote, and got an extra urban boost from Obama.
However, after the election, when it came to governing, Perdue couldn’t thread the needle as well. Despite having a Democratic legislature, she had a rough initial session; Perdue had conflicts within her own party, while the GOP was eager to label her as a high-taxing liberal. As a result, her approval ratings dropped, and never recovered. In the meantime, McCrory was still active in politics. In 2010, he campaigned for Republican candidates; the year culminated with the GOP flipping both chambers of the legislature.
It was an open secret that McCrory would run again in 2012. He retained good favorability ratings, and now had an “I told you so!” factor playing in his favor. Public Policy Polling, which is based in Raleigh, routinely showed McCrory winning a hypothetical rematch, sometimes by double-digits.
Facing an uphill slog, in early 2012, Perdue announced that she’d retire after her single term. Democrats eventually nominated Lieutenant Gov. Walter Dalton. Dalton was not a bad candidate, but the albatross of Perdue meant that McCrory was in the driver’s seat for the entire campaign
At the Presidential level, while Democrats heavily invested in North Carolina, most visibly holding their convention in Charlotte, the state narrowly flipped to Gov. Romney:
McCrory led in every pre-election poll, and won by 11.5%, becoming the first mayor of Charlotte to be elected Governor:
This time, running against a weaker Democrat, McCrory flipped Mecklenburg County, even as President Obama’s margin stayed about the same there. He carried it by 3K votes out of the 445K it cast. In the author’s aforementioned south Charlotte precinct, McCrory went from 74% in 2008 to 77% in 2012.
While McCrory did 9% better than Romney statewide, Dalton held up better in some areas:
Before serving as LG, Dalton represented Rutherford County in the State Senate, the bright blue county in the southwest. He also had pockets of strength in the east. In southeastern NC, he ran ahead of Obama in Robeson County, home of the Lumbee tribe. The adjacent county, Columbus, which we’ve mentioned, narrowly flipped to McCrory but Dalton ran 7% over Obama there. Finally, Dalton did well in the ‘finger counties’ in the northeastern corner of the state, though a close legislative race there may have helped him.
With unified control of state government, Republicans took the state far to the right. In their first few legislative sessions, they pushed for things such as a strict voter ID law, voucherization of education, and tried to lessen the autonomy of the more Democratic-leaning cities. During much of his tenure, McCrory’s approvals fluctuated, but were generally lukewarm.
The rightward shift in the state’s politics prompted State Attorney General Roy Cooper to announce a run for Governor in late 2014. Cooper was elected AG in 2000, after representing Rocky Mount in the legislature. His initial statewide race was close, but since then, had not been seriously challenged.
For all of 2015, hypothetical polling had the incumbent and the challenger trading leads, and the 2016 contest was looking be a very close race. In May 2016, though, McCrory came under national scrutiny for signing HB2, the infamous “bathroom bill.” It was seen as trans-phobic, as it linked bathroom usage in state buildings to the sex on one’s birth certificate. The measure was roundly criticized by major corporations, and prompted businesses to leave, or at least halt their expansions, in North Carolina. Most notably, in a state known for its love of basketball, the NCAA moved it championship games out of the state.
The HB2 controversy took an electoral toll on McCrory. In what was a razor-thin race, Cooper started to post increasingly frequent leads. Still, McCrory defended HB2, perhaps hoping to solidify his appeal with social conservatives.
Almost exactly a month before election day, Hurricane Matthew barreled through the state. Counties near the coast saw flooding, with Robeson (Lumberton), Lenoir (Kinston) and Pitt (Greenville) being hit especially hard. McCrory garnered mostly good reviews for his handling of the hurricane and its aftermath. Politically, could he have gotten a boost at just the right time?
The confluence of these events made for an interesting electoral map.
At the top of the ticket, President Trump beat Secretary Clinton by 3.6%. The early vote showed that black turnout was lagging. The crossover that Clinton got from suburban Republicans couldn’t outweigh Trump’s massive rural support:
Despite Trump’s clear win, Cooper ended up on the winning side of the Gubernatorial race, by a margin of just over 10K votes:
McCrory’s handling of Hurricane Matthew paid electoral dividends. He retained some appeal in Charlotte, vis-a-vis Trump, but otherwise his banner region was, ironically enough, the east. From a historical perspective, a Republican Gubernatorial candidate doing better than the Presidential nominee there was unheard of:
Still, while McCrory gained in the east, the aftermath from the storm also meant that turnout was lower in many the precincts the overperformed the most in:
Further, the controversy over HB2 clearly made McCrory toxic with socially moderate suburbanites. In Mecklenburg County, he was now performing worse than a generic Republican – Cooper trounced him there 63/34. Again, in my precinct, he went from pushing 80% in 2012 to just a bare 50/48 margin. In Wake County, Cooper nearly cleared 60%, after McCrory previously carried it.
Other, more localized, factors likewise hurt McCrory. In the northern Charlotte metro area, for example, his support for I-77 tolls was especially costly. He declined to cancel the area’s toll lane project, which was extremely unpopular in this, ironically, conservative-leaning area. In northern Mecklenburg County, he received about 2,000 votes fewer than Trump, was already underperforming. In fact, Trump won this part of the county 52/44 while McCrory lost it 49/48. This was a seismic shift from 2012; he carried the same area by a crushing 71/27.
However, despite improving 12% over Dalton, Cooper lost ground in many of the counties effected by Hurricane Matthew:
Robeson County is especially pronounced here. The state’s largest county by area, while it did sustain heavy flooding, it has overwhelming Democratic heritage. In 2012, every state Democratic candidate cleared 60% there. While it reverted to its normal patterns in lower-tier races (mostly), McCrory carried Robeson County 53/46, and even Trump won it 51/47. Demographically, its likely the most diverse county in the state, being about evenly split between whites, blacks and the Lumbee tribe. The precincts that had the strongest GOP swings were Lumbee-heavy. The localized flooding may have driven pro-GOP sentiments, though at a national level, counties with a large American Indian presence swung hard to Trump, so it will be interesting to see if that trend holds.
In all the state’s major urban areas, Cooper actually ran slightly behind Dalton in black-majority precincts. This was likely a function of President Obama’s absence from the ballot, as turnout was down in those precincts. Still, in such a close race, those marginal factors are key.
Looking further back to 2008, McCrory had significant upside in eastern NC, given Perdue’s personal vote, but this shows how reliant on urban areas Cooper’s win was:
Okay, this is all fine and pretty, Miles, but what does it mean?
For Republicans, McCrory’s story may serve as a cautionary study. While they have an iron grip on the legislature, their perceived overreach could hurt the electability of their candidates on a statewide basis. Still, the GOP is in a pretty solid position. Despite McCrory’s loss they now control a majority of the statewide row offices. Further, at the Presidential level, the state hasn’t trended against them as rapidly as some have predicted. For instance, from 2008 to 2016, Georgia, which is demographically similar, stayed exactly the same (Clinton lost it by 5.1% compared to Obama’s 5.2%), while North Carolina moved 3% to the right.
For Democrats, a lesson out of this may be to not take certain groups for granted, such as the Native American vote. At a more general level, the party needs to find ways to connect with rural voters. This last map is a good example of that. This is Cooper’s 2016 map compared to Obama’s in 2008; both were narrow Democratic wins – given the nationalization of local races, this may be the most relevant comparison:
Though both won by similarly narrow margins, Cooper performed better than Obama in just 19 counties; most of which are urban and have a high concentration of voters with college degrees. If Democrats don’t tailor their message to go beyond these types of constituencies, they leave themselves little room for error in statewide races, and they will be hard pressed to make substantial gains in the legislature.
McCrory was a transitional figure, electorally. The change in his support spoke well to the evolving regionalisms at play. His election could have easily gone the other way in this nearly-50/50 state, and both parties should consider what went right, and wrong, in his races.