Looking back, it’s clear that North Carolina took a big step in 2008 toward becoming a Democratic state in presidential elections. It’s not clear whether we’ll keep moving in that direction.
Since 2008, Democrats have confidently predicted that demographic trends — more young voters, minority voters and college-educated voters — would make North Carolina more like Virginia, which is increasingly Democratic, and Georgia, which was surprisingly Democratic in 2020.
Before we explore whether that will happen, let’s be clear about the “blue shift” that already has happened.
From 1980 to 2004, North Carolina was reliably Republican in presidential races. Republican candidates carried the state seven straight times, usually by double digits.
Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter here by 2% in 1980, then swamped Walter Mondale by 24% in 1984; George H. W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis by over 16% in 1988. Bill Clinton made North Carolina competitive again in 1992, losing to Bush by less than 1%, partly because Ross Perot was on the ballot and siphoned votes away from Bush. Bob Dole beat Clinton here by 4.7% in 1996.
In 2000, George W. Bush beat Al Gore in North Carolina by 12.8%; Bush beat John Kerry by 12.4% in 2004, even with former North Carolina Senator John Edwards on the Democratic ticket.
But that pattern changed dramatically in 2008.
The breakthrough didn’t come the way experts expected: with a moderate white candidate from the South, another Carter or Clinton. Instead, it was a black candidate, an unknown first-term senator from Illinois with an unlikely name and an unexpected appeal.
Republicans scoffed that year at reports Barack Obama’s campaign was targeting North Carolina. No way, they said, could a black Democrat win such a safe Republican state.
But Obama did win, by just 0.3%, thanks to a surge of minority voters and young voters. He won white working-class voters who had lost faith in Republican economic policies and lost patience with never-ending wars in the Middle East. John McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin for vice president cost him women and college-educated voters.
North Carolina turned red again on the electoral maps of 2012, 2016 and 2020. But the margins never returned to pre-2008 levels. Mitt Romney beat Obama here in 2012 by just 2%. Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 3.6% in 2016 and Joe Biden by 1.3% in November.
Democrats here have been inspired by Democrats in Georgia, which went for Biden and elected two Democratic Senators. Efforts have begun to replicate Georgia Democrats’ voter registration and turnout juggernaut.
But North Carolina isn’t Georgia. We’re more rural. While both states have over 10 million people, Georgia’s rural population is about 1.8 million; North Carolina’s is over 3 million. Georgia has more black voters — 30% of the total electorate, compared to North Carolina’s 20%.
Three questions will decide the future of North Carolina’s “blue shift.”
First, will COVID and its economic impact put an end to the 40-year reign of Ronald Reagan’s philosophy that “government is the problem?” Some polls suggest Americans today want more from government, not less.
Second, which party’s set of issues matter more to voters? Biden and Democrats are focusing on COVID vaccines, economic relief, climate change, and gender and racial equality. Republicans are focused on abortion, immigration, “reopening” the country and “cancel culture.”
Third, which will prevail: Democrats’ efforts to expand voting or Republicans’ efforts to restrict it?
In a state where presidential elections are decided by 1, 2 or 3%, small actions and small shifts in attitudes can produce big shifts in outcomes.
Gary Pearce was a political consultant, and an adviser to Gov. Jim Hunt (1976-84 and 1992-2000).