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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Turnout vs. Persuasion in NC: Real Or False Choice?

For a perceptive look at Democratic possibilities in NC, check out “To win statewide in NC, there’s one thing Democrats should change” by Ned Barnett at The (Raleigh) News & Observer. As Barnett writes:

There’s a reason Democrats struggle to win statewide elections in North Carolina and there’s a way they can do better. That’s the upshot of an analysis of voter turnout in North Carolina’s 2022 Senate race by Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist. It should be required reading for Democrats as they approach the 2024 race for governor. In the Senate race, Democrats nominated former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley and Republicans chose U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, a backer of gun rights and opponent of abortion and LGBTQ rights who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. The contest looked promising for the Democrats: a respected jurist against a reactionary congressman, yet Budd won with 50.5 percent of the vote to Beasley’s 47.2 percent.

Democrats blamed their defeat on a lack of national Democratic funding that resulted in Beasley being heavily outspent by outside groups supporting Budd. That was part of it, but Bitzer’s analysis shows the main reason: Poor turnout among core Democratic groups. “For Black/African Americans, their turnout rate was nearly 10 points below the state’s turnout rate, while white turnout was 7 points ahead,” Bitzer said in his analysis. He added that participation by voters under 40 – a key to Democrats’ successes in other states – was “abysmally below the state’s turnout rate.”

This raises strategic questions for what may be the Democrats best shot at a swing state: Should NC Democrats invest more in mobilizing Black turnout, or focus more on appealing to rural voters? Or is that a false choice because winning Democratic campaigns have to do both?

Barnett continues, explaining “Bitzer notes that Democratic turnout has not matched Republican turnout in any midterm or presidential election since 2008. That trend matters as Democrats look ahead to 2024. The early favorites to face off for governor are Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein and Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. If that’s the case, it’s something of a replay of the Senate race: A prominent and politically cautious legal veteran vs. a very conservative firebrand. The result could be the same, too, unless Democrats address the voting intensity gap they have with Republicans. Democrats who water-down their progressive positions in hopes of cutting their rural and suburban losses also diminish their support among core Democratic groups.”

Of course many Democratic strategists argue that the opposite is true: Don’t waste resources on Black midterm turnout when the party needs to peel off  just a small share of the rural vote. Dems may have a  better chance of taking away about 2 percent of those who voted for Ted Budd against Beasley in NC’s midterm senate race and persuading them to vote Democratic than they do of enhancing Black midterm turnout.

It should be easier to reach Black voters, most of whom are concentrated in NC’s large cities. And it is always  tough for Dems to reach rural voters. Democratic candidates have to put in more time to reach rural voters who are more scattered. However, NC’s ‘Research Triangle‘ does include a large concentration of educated and more liberal white voters.

The lessons of the Georgia flip of 2020 may not be applicable in NC because (a.) NC has a smaller percentage of Black residents (about 1 out of 5 compared to GA’s 1 out of 3), and (b.) NC doesn’t have GA’s election activists and (c.) Donald Trump didn’t fubar NC’s GOP.

In addition, Beasley was a really good candidate with impressive credentials, and may have done as well as any Democrat could have in NC’s cities. Barnett adds,

Pope “Mac” McCorkle, a professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and a veteran North Carolina political consultant, thinks Stein should stay the middle course. While Democrats haven’t won a statewide federal race since 2008, he said, they have won seven of the last eight gubernatorial elections. And Stein has won two statewide elections for attorney general. “That’s nothing to sneeze at,” McCorkle said. “He didn’t win big, but he still won.”….A Democratic strategy of trying to reduce losses in Republican areas is also questioned by Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University political scientist. He said Stein “won’t be able to pull the Roy Cooper magic trick” of drawing votes from rural counties. “Stein’s path,” he said, “will be to double down on urban counties.”

Barnett nonetheless concludes, “A key message for Democratic candidates is that trying to reach unreachable rural and conservative-leaning voters invites failing to inspire core Democratic voters. In short, to win as a Democrat, run as one.”

But the question remains, for state-wide races, is it really all that impossible to do both a first-rate job of turning out Black voters and also persuading 2 percent of rural GOP voters to flip towards the Democrats? Or maybe just do a little bit better at meeting both challenges.

One comment on “Turnout vs. Persuasion in NC: Real Or False Choice?

  1. David Fitts on

    I live in Kentucky and have been involved in politics for many years. In our state’s legislature, Republicans hold a super majority but we have Democratic governor (with high favorable ratings), who is running for re-election this year. I advocate for revitalizing the party through state legislative districts. This would allow for scaled down efforts to reach into rural districts. Analysis can reveal which districts might be more susceptible to flipping. Finding good candidates is also critical. In 2022, 40 of our 100 State Rep seats did not field a Democratic candidate. The efforts to find good candidates were mostly futile and came across as desperate. We really need to make direct contact with voters in rural districts, identify who the swing voters are and what issues are important to them. Building the party from the state legislative districts should have a positive effect on statewide races.


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