The 2016 North Carolina Election Day Vote (The Only Poll That Matters…)

At 7:30 PM on election night, at DDHQ, we turned out attention to the swing state of North Carolina. As I grew up in Charlotte, and still follow state politics, I was overseeing DDHQ’s NC coverage. At DDHQ we make our calls based on nonpartisan analysis, but as the results started to roll in, the Democrat in me was excited. After losing my favorite Senator in 2014 (Kay Hagan), I wanted to see some blue again in North Carolina. Specifically, I was watching the Governor’s race. Governor Pat McCrory (R) had drawn a top tier challenger in State AG Roy Cooper (D); most polls had Cooper as a slight favorite.

I called our director, Brandon Finnigan, “Brandon, this is awesome! Trump is behind in most key areas, and McCrory is doing even worse. President is gonna be close, but I don’t see how McCrory holds on.” Indeed, in the critical county of Wake (where Raleigh is), neither Trump nor McCrory were cracking 35%. In Mecklenburg County, where McCrory has served seven terms as mayor, he was running behind Trump, and taking just over 30%.

By end of the night, Trump had won the state by almost 4% (better than most polls). McCrory ended up losing, but only by about 10,000 votes. What happened? The election day vote.

The initial returns came primarily from early and absentee votes, which favor Democrats. As the election night dragged on, more of the election day vote trickled in and it buoyed Republicans. We of course adjusted our analysis accordingly throughout the night, but the difference between the election day vote and early vote this year seemed especially stark – suggesting late voters broke to Trump.

Here, we’ll look at the tug-of-war that took place between the early and election day vote.

Overall, Trump carried the state by just under 4%:


Throughout the two or so weeks before the election, NC saw a record number of early and absentee votes – over 3 million votes were cast then. These voters preferred Clinton by 2.5%:


By contrast, about a third of electorate chose to vote on election day. And they went for Trump. Bigly:


Some counties where Republicans are usually not even competitive voted for Trump on election day. The most glaring example of this was Buncombe County (Asheville) in western NC, which has become a Democratic stronghold even as much of Appalachian NC has moved rightward.

Here’s the difference in chart form:



In looking at the ‘swing’ between the early and election day vote, only 3 counties become more Democratic on election day: 1) Davidson County, which is rock-solid GOP 2) Tyrell County, which is sparsely populated, and 3) Lenior County for some reason:


Getting down to the precinct level, here’s what the election day vote looked like:



How did Roy Cooper manage to win in the Governor’s race for Democrats, then? He won early vote by a more comfortable 52/46 while ‘only’ losing 54/43 on election day:


Here’s a map comparing Trump’s margins (blue) with those of McCrory (just election day):


McCrory got a bump out east, most likely because he oversaw the response to Hurricane Matthew, which blew through the region a few weeks earlier. Still, this is significant in that eastern NC is historically more likely to cross over for state Democrats. McCrory was the first Republican in modern history to run ahead of his party’s Presidential nominee there. Otherwise, McCrory outperformed Trump in minority-heavy precincts in most of the major cities – perhaps some Democrats there voted for President but skipped the Governor’s race.

Finally, here’s a look at how the election day vote looks like during a midterm year. Specifically, in 2014, Senator Kay Hagan (D) lost by a narrow 1.6% to State House Speaker Thom Tillis (R). This time we’re coming Trump (blue) to Thom Tillis (red) in 2014:


Basically, compared to Trump, Tillis stunk.

In 2014, Hagan won the early vote 52/45, but Tillis won on election day 51/44. Those would have been great numbers for Clinton to aim for, this year. Still, Hagan lost because, unlike 2016, more people voted on election day than did early. The difference is quite stark. While 67% of voters went early in 2016, only 40% did in 2014:


If Hagan’s numbers held, but she got the early/election day vote ratio to this year’s 67/33 instead of the actual 40/60, she’d have won by 2%.

With early voting becoming more popular, it looks like Republicans, long-term, will be more reliant on the election day vote. It reminds me of the old political cliché that “the only poll that matters is the one on election day.” Well for Republicans, being competitive in the early vote is important, but their most important poll is definitely the one on election day.