Raleigh – North Carolina has been politically competitive for a long time. It will remain so for the foreseeable future, although the structure and focal points of that political competition have always been subject to change.
For example, from 1980 to 2008, Republicans could properly count on North Carolina being a likely “get” for president even as Democrats usually dominated state and local offices. The 1992 cycle was a bit of an outlier, because of Ross Perot’s presence in a three-man field, but generally Republican presidential campaigns weren’t very worried about the state and Democratic campaigns weren’t very hopeful about it.
Barack Obama changed the equation. While he lost the state again in 2012, and Trump won our electoral votes in 2016 and 2020, all these contests were competitive and the margins modest.
Speaking of state and local offices, the widespread assumption when I first started covering North Carolina politics in the 1980s was that the legislature would be Democratic but Republicans could reasonably hope to win gubernatorial and, by the end of the decade, judicial races.
Then came 1994. While Republicans only held the North Carolina House for four years, and still hadn’t yet won the North Carolina Senate, both parties adjusted to the new reality of a General Assembly truly in play for the first time. Democratic leaders “adjusted” to it in 2001 by enacting the most-egregious gerrymander of legislative districts in modern history, failing to convince a GOP-dominated Supreme Court to let them get away with it, and then using various unsavory and illegal means, including out-and-out bribery, to retain control for the rest of the decade.
Their luck ran out in 2010 when the Republicans — vastly outspent and forced to run in Democratic-drawn districts — won majorities in both chambers. They proceeded to draw districts highly favorable to the GOP, losing a string of court cases but continuing to reelect legislative majorities, anyway, in part because of ongoing shifts in the partisan preferences of rural and suburban voters.
While all this was going on, however, Republicans struggled to convert their gains at the legislative and local levels into success in key statewide offices. Since 1992, only one Republican has been elected governor, Pat McCrory, and he served a single term.
Individual candidates and matchups matter. So does the behavior of split-ticket voters, who may be fewer in number than a generation or two ago but remain decisive in a closely divided state. In the past, quite a few North Carolinians voted reliably Republican for president, Congress, and U.S. Senate but preferred Democrats for state and local office. Now we see something like the reverse — a small but critical bloc of voters who pick Republicans for state legislature or county commission but are willing to pick Democrats for governor or president if they don’t sound too extreme.
As a true partisan battleground, North Carolina and a small number of similarly situated states enjoy disproportionate attention from national media and disproportionate influence over national affairs. There are many different ways to measure this, but I find the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index (PVI) to be especially handy.
It doesn’t rely on party registration, a lagging and often misleading statistic, or even on self-identification by voters. Instead, it aggregates election results from several recent cycles. For North Carolina as a whole, Cook’s PVI is +3 Republican. Florida, Georgia, and Arizona all have that same PVI rating. Seems about right.
Only 14 states have PVI values within a range of +3 Democratic to +3 Republican. In addition to the ones mentioned above, they are blue-tilting Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, Minnesota, and Maine; red-tilting Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin; and dead-even Nevada and New Hampshire.
These 14 battleground states aren’t the only places where split-ticket voting can produce striking outcomes. Massachusetts, Maryland, and Vermont have popular Republican governors. Kansas, Kentucky, and Louisiana have Democratic ones. In presidential and senatorial contests, however, the list of consistently competitive places remains short — and contains North Carolina.