- A study of NC Council of State races from 2004 to 2016 found that, rather than turning blue, North Carolina has trended slightly Republican
- An examination of voting patterns in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, NC combined statistical area provides an example of diverging patterns between urban and rural areas
This is the second of a two-part series responding to claims that North Carolina is trending towards Democrats. In my first article, I noted that statewide voter registration data indicates a turn away from Democrats along with very small increase in Republicans statewide. However, the biggest trend in voter registration over the past decade was a dramatic increase in the number of unaffiliated voters.
However, North Carolina could still be turning blue, despite the decline in Democratic Party voter registration, if unaffiliated voters are increasingly voting Democratic. I will investigate that possibility in this article.
Are North Carolina voters turning the state blue?
What does an examination of data tell us about trends in the voting patterns of North Carolinians? That depends on your answer to a couple of other questions: which offices are you examining? Which years do you include in the examination period?
For this article, I am examining down-ballot NC Council of State races. Those offices include commissioner of agriculture, commissioner of insurance, commissioner of labor, attorney general, secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction, state treasurer and state auditor. Since Council of State positions tend to be relatively low-profile (with the exception of attorney general) and races for those offices tend to be low-key and not especially well-funded affairs (again, with the exception of attorney general), they represent a better baseline of general voting trends than do higher profile races such as president, governor, or senator. That is why Civitas uses Council of State races for our Civitas Partisan Index (CPI). Unlike the CPI, I do not include races for governor or lieutenant governor in this study.
The elections examined are from 2004 through 2016. Doing so provides a 12-year spread that generally overlaps with the 10-year period (2009-2019) I examined in the previous article on voter registration. 2004 is also a good starting point because, like 2016, it featured a Republican win for president and a Democratic win for governor, allowing for a more apples-to-apples comparison.
An examination of the Council of State races from 2004 to 2016 provides no evidence that North Carolina is trending blue. The mean vote share for Democrats was 53.4 percent in 2004, 53.5 percent in 2008, 51.5 percent in 2012, and 48.5 percent in 2016. Republicans received 46.6 percent of the total vote in 2004, 46.1 percent in 2008, 48.5 percent in 2012 and 51.5 percent in 2016. The relative vote share of the parties was stable in the first three elections, but for the first time Republicans were able to win most of the average vote share of the two major parties in 2016. That information is presented in Figure 1.
The 2016 Council of State races were a breakthrough for Republicans; they ended the long-standing Democratic majority on the Council of State despite being outspent in five of the eight races that year. While some of the Republican advantage that year could be attributed to Donald Trump being at the top of the ballot, the three previous elections offered no indication of a trend in favor of Democrats either.
Shifting voting patterns: The Research Triangle region
While statewide data indicates a slight trend in favor of Republicans, shifting voting trends within North Carolina are more interesting. As with my previous article on shifts in voter registration, I will focus on the US Census Bureau’s Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, NC combined statistical area (CSA). The area includes what I refer to as three core counties (Durham, Orange, Wake) and eight peripheral counties (Chatham, Franklin, Granville, Harnett, Johnston, Lee, Person and Vance). For this report, I compare the first and last elections covered in this study: 2004 and 2016.
The total number of votes in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill CSA increased from 697,370 in 2004 to 1,019,094 in 2016, reflecting both an increase in population in the region and higher voter turnout.
The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill CSA favored Democrats in both elections. The average vote for a Democratic down-ballot Council of State candidate in the region was 418,937 (60.1 percent) in 2004 compared to an average vote of 278,433 (39.9 percent) for the average Republican candidate. In 2016 the average was 595,048 (58.4 percent) for Democrats compared to 424,046 (41.6 percent) for Republicans.
While the average Democratic margin (found by subtracting the average Republican vote from the average Democratic vote) in the region increased by 30,498 votes in Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill CSA, that actually represents a proportional decline, with the average Democratic margin decreasing by 3.4 percentage points from 2004 to 2016. While the region remained Democratic, the trend was in favor of Republicans, not Democrats.
As seen in Table 1, there was a great deal of variation between the core and peripheral counties. The Democratic margin increased in each of the core counties (Durham, Orange, and Wake) with an average increase in margin of victory of 3.2 percent.
It was a very different story in the peripheral counties, however. The Democratic margin in each of those eight counties fell by double-digit percentages. Three of those counties (Chatham, Granville and Vance) voted Democratic in both elections but with decreased margins. Four counties (Franklin, Harnett, Lee, and Person) switched from Democratic to Republican. Only one county (Johnston) had voted Republican in 2004. It voted Republican again in 2016 with a larger Republican margin. The changes in vote margin are visualized in figure 2.
To see more about changing voting patterns in NC, check out this post from Old North State Politics.
The bottom line
Republicans should not take too much comfort in these findings. While North Carolina is certainly not trending Democratic, the trend in favor of Republicans is small and comes after a long period of Democratic advantage in statewide races. As seen in the Democratic sweep of four statewide judicial races in 2018 (although two featured Republican spoiler candidates), either party can do well in any given election cycle in North Carolina.
North Carolina is not trending blue. However, it is too early to know if the shift in favor of Republicans from 2004 to 2016 is part of a long-term trend of greater Republican advantages. If anything, it looks as if this highly competitive state is becoming even more competitive.