Sunday, July 17, 2011

Redrawing the Rules of the Game in North Carolina

Well, it’s been a fascinating week in North Carolina politics, due mostly to the redrawing the rules of the game of politics. The proposed district maps for the NC General Assembly have generated a lot of commentary and perspectives, along with the pending revisions to the congressional districts. In looking primarily at the state house and senate legislative districts, it would be helpful to have a “reference” point for dissecting these maps and their political importance in next year’s election.


What I have done is provided color-associated maps of the 120 new districts in the NC House of Representatives and the 50 new districts in the NC Senate, based on the approach that Charlie Cook takes with his analysis of U.S. House districts, known as the Partisan Voting Index, or PVI. The PVI uses the 2004 & 2008 presidential elections as a basis (see below) for the districts, and then classify the districts into five categories: “Likely Republican,” “Lean Republican,” “Toss Up,” “Lean Democratic,” and “Likely Democratic.” Based on the PVI model and classifications (see below), we could expect the following:

  • In the "new" NC House of Representatives, 62 districts appear to be “likely” to elect one party over the other; within these 62 “safe” districts, there is a 33-29 advantage to the Republican Party.

  • In the "New" NC Senate, 27 districts appear to be “likely” to elect one party over the other; within these 27 districts, there is a nearly even split between Democrats (14) and Republicans (13).

  • It is within the districts that appear to “lean” to one party or the other that the Republicans could truly make substantial inroads to majorities in both chambers. In the NC House, 39 districts appear to lean to the GOP, while only 7 appear to lean to the Democrats. In the NC Senate, 16 districts appear to lean to the Republicans, with only 2 leaning to the Democrats.

  • In terms of those districts classified as potential "toss-up" districts, both chambers have only ten percent of their seats within this category: 5 out of 50 senate seats and 12 out of 120 house seats could be competitive, based on their PVI scores.

  • To document the partisan leanings of these five categories, you may find these analyses showing the averages within the five categories for the NC Senate and NC House districts as to registered party affiliation and the 2004 and 2008 presidential and gubernatorial election results in these new districts.

First, some notes regarding how to read the attached maps and the PVI scores (in other words, the “disclaimer” portion of this analysis):

  • Much like Charlie Cook’s analysis, these are not predictions on who will win the districts, but rather an objective measure to compare districts to one another. Charlie Cook’s Partisan Voting Index (PVI) utilizes a district’s presidential voting patterns against an average (his being national, mine being state-level for NC) for the past two presidential elections: 2004 and 2008. Each party’s presidential election result in the district has the party’s statewide average subtracted from it, and then the two figures are averaged for the PVI. The PVI shows the district’s proclivity of voting for each party at the presidential level (D+5 means the district would have voted, on average, plus five points Democratic), which may (or may not) filter down to lower-ballot races (see below for more on this point).

  • The PVI is based on the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections in North Carolina, which has its own set of cautionary tales. The 2004 presidential election was the classic retelling of a ruby-red presidential state, with George W. Bush winning the state by 13 percent. But when Democrat Obama came to make North Carolina competitive, he turned that ruby-red into a deep purple, winning the state by just 0.32 percent. When you have two elections of such extreme ends, the measurement probably will reflect that shift as well. My “political gut” leads me to believe that 2012 will probably be more like 2008 than 2004 (see the DNC in Charlotte, the Obama campaign “hinting” of NC’s importance to their re-election), with both political parties utilizing a massive ground-game of voter mobilization (the GOP learned from the Democrats in 2008, and brought out their ground game in 2010, thus winning the North Carolina General Assembly).

  • Other analyses of these maps will most certainly utilize a combination of other factors—such as voter registration, down-ballot elections (auditor, lieutenant governor, etc.)—beyond what this analysis does. I certainly do not discount these factors, particularly voter registration, in analyzing these districts and their potential. Again, these maps that I present are not predictions, but indications of where these districts may perform in future elections. A lot of other factors—mobilization, candidate qualities, the role of campaign finance—will certainly make the equation much more difficult, and I readily acknowledge those factors.

  • As noted above, North Carolina voters have a tendency to split their tickets: meaning, voters are willing to vote for one party for president, the other party for governor, switch back to the first party for U.S. Senate, and then back to the second party for state house, etc.

  • Conversely, the 2008 exit poll for the November General Election showed that 89.9% of self-identified Democrats voted for Obama, while self-identified Republicans voted 93.3% for McCain. For both parties’ candidates for U.S. Senate and NC governor in 2008, at least 85% of self-identified partisans voted for their party candidate.

  • Finally, when incumbents run for re-election, they are often hard to beat. The power of incumbency most often is due to name recognition, which challengers often must spend a disproportionate amount of money on to achieve some level of parity with the current officerholder.
So, with those caveats in mind, let me discuss each set of maps and their overall patterns, along with some other observations.


  • Lewis-Dollar-Dockham 1 Map indicating the PVI categories for districts (here is the map posted on the NCGA website that only show the different districts)

  • Listing of districts by the PVI categories: this one is sorted by district number within the category, while this one is sorted by the PVI from most Republican to most Democratic within the categories
The PVI analysis of the new legislative districts indicates that 33 districts will most likely go Republican, while another 29 districts will most likely go Democratic, providing a fairly equal base of support for each party to build upon. Within almost all of these districts, the margins of victories at the presidential level were translated to the parties’ gubernatorial candidates, and the winning party’s legislative candidates benefited as well (some more than their presidential & gubernatorial candidates). In addition, the percentages of registered voters appear to benefit the winning party as well. The one exception is the Democratically-held District 69, which has a VPI of +12 Republican. It is hard to imagine that Democratic incumbent Representative McGuirt would hold on in this plurality Republican-registered district, but again, incumbency may prove beneficial.

The most Republican districts in the House appears to be Districts 73 (Alexander-Wilkes-Yadkin) and 78 (Randolph & Moore), with R+20 PVI ratings. The most Democratic district appears to be District 29 (Durham), with a PVI rating of D+37.

So both parties start with solid bases, but it is in the “lean” categories where the apparent success of redrawing the lines has paid off for the Republicans: 39 districts are classified as "Lean Republican," with 9 of these districts currently being held by Democratic incumbents. Of these 9, four districts (35, 45, 55, and 59) that Democrats currently hold appear as “open” seats, presenting viable opportunities for the opposing party (Republicans) to pick these seats.

Conversely, only 7 districts "Lean Democratic," with two of them being open seats—another challenge for Democrats to hold on to these seats.

Within the twelve competitive “Toss Up” districts, most of the districts have slight Republican advantages, but some are truely battleground competitive: districts 66 (that includes Richmond, Scotland, Hoke, and Robeson counties) and 41 (Wake) will be the ones, most likely, by which to judge next year’s elections by, as their PVIs indicate an even split between the two parties.

A few more observations: in the districts that are held by Democrats but indicate a “lean Republican” status, half of them share a common characteristic: voters who like to split their tickets. In both 2004 and 2008, four proposed districts voted Republican at the presidential level and voted Democratic at the gubernatorial level. How this will translate even further down ballot is to gaze into the political crystal ball.

As noted above, one House District—69 (Union)—currently held by the Democrats will almost inevitably go Republican, due to the past voting history at the presidential and gubernatorial level (no less than 16% victories for Republicans) and registered Republicans making up 41% of the electorate, compared to 32% registered as Democrats.

Among the Democratic-held districts that are classified “Toss Ups,” they again share the characteristic as their “lean Republican” brethren—that of split ticket voting: Republican at the presidential level, Democratic for governor.

If it’s a consolation to the Democrats, two Republican-held districts (6 (Washington, Beaufort, and Craven) & 46 (Columbus & Robeson)) that are “lean Republican” show the split ticket phenomenon as well. But these two districts also have their Republican incumbent double-bunked with Democratic incumbents, so these should be ones to watch next year, if all four incumbents decide to run within these new districts.

In the Republican-held “Toss Up” category, these districts appear to be ones where the Obama grass-roots mobilization had a significant effect, going from an average 20% Republican advantage in 2004 to, in one case, 0.05% Democratic advantage.

The end result: it appears that the Republicans have truly made their base of winnable districts much stronger than the Democrats. If Republicans were to only take those districts in the “Likely” and “Lean” columns, they would have a safe majority in the NC House of Representatives, starting with 72 seats. The map detailing these seats and classifications are here (same as the above link; deep red is a district with a Republican PVI greater than 10, while districts in green are “toss-ups,” and dark blue are districts with Democratic PVIs greater than 10).


  • Rucho 1 Map indicating the PVI categories for districts (here is the map posted on the NCGA website that only show the different districts)

  • Listing of districts by the PVI categories: this one is sorted by district number within the category, while this one is sorted by the PVI from most Republican to most Democratic within the categories
Across the marble hall on Jones Street, the Senate shows some commonality with the House districts, but also some oddities as well. Both parties have a strong list of “likely” seats, with Republicans appearing to have 13 to the Democrats’ 14 districts. But again, like in the House, it is in the “Lean” columns where Republicans have made substantial inroads: 16 “lean” GOP districts (with four of those being held currently by Democrats) to only 2 “lean” Democratic districts (and no GOP districts are “lean Democratic”). Starting at a potential 29 seats, the GOP would, like in the House, already begin the 2012 contest with a significant majority in the 50-member upper chamber. The five districts that are truly “toss-ups” are just that—they could conceivably break either way.

The districts that appear the most Republican in the Senate are 29 (Moore & Randolph) and 30 (Stokes, Surry & Wilkes), both at R+15, while the district that appears to be the most Democratic is 28 (Guilford) with D+31 PVI.
There are some oddities, however, in the Senate. For example, Senate District 13 is held by a Democratic incumbent, but listed as “lean Democrat,” simply because it went only 2 and 6 points for the Democratic presidential candidates in 2004 and 2008, respectively. More importantly, however, it went 38 and 39 points for the Democratic gubernatorial candidates, so even though the PVI shows a limited average for Democrats, this should be a safe seat for the party.

The four other Democratic-held seats that “Lean Republican” (new districts 1, 18, 25, and 27) show strong Republican performances in 2004, with three of them again splitting in 2008 (voting for McCain while electing a Democratic state senator).

Five senate districts are classified as "toss-ups," with the potential to go to either party, based on 2008 election performances.

The end result in the Senate: like in the House, if Republicans only gain those seats listed in the "Likely Republican" and "Lean Republican" columns, they will have a majority of 29 and control the upper-chamber as well. The map detailing these seats and classifications are here (same as the above link; deep red is a district with a Republican PVI greater than 10, while districts in green are “toss-ups,” and dark blue are districts with Democratic PVIs greater than 10).

One last comment: for those seeking truly competitive elections, it may be disheartening to have only 5 out of 50 senate seats, and 12 out of 120 house seats, where either party could claim victory. So, for 89 out of 170 seats up for grabs in the North Carolina General Assembly next year (those "likely" seats), we may know in the primary election who will hold the seats come the general election. Welcome to the world of partisanship and gerrymandering.

I'd like to thank the NC Free Enterprise Foundation for their very useful comparison charts on the NC House & Senate districts.