By Michael Bitzer
A recent article in The Atlantic is getting a lot of play in the Old North State's political arena by asking the question, "What Does This Man Know That Other Democrats Don't?", regarding the success that North Carolina governor Roy Cooper has had over his political career.
In the article, the author traces Cooper's time as a state representative up to currently serving as the state's chief executive officer (note to author: we don't call our state representatives "general assemblyman," but rather our legislature is known as the General Assembly, with representatives and senators who compose the bicameral body).
And while several of the state's leading political strategists weighed in on Cooper's success and trying to define it, there was no mentioned made of several important facets that could have helped further explain, or at least address, the question "what's so different about Roy Cooper winning in North Carolina?"
One such aspect is that since 1980, North Carolina has had a rich history of voting Republican at the federal-office level and Democratic at the state-office level. This dynamic is a pretty important reason in considering the Trump/Tillis/Cooper dynamics of the 2020 general election.
If you add up the federal candidates' (i.e., presidential and U.S. Senate) votes between 1984 and 2004 in the state, Republicans secured 52.6 percent to Democrats' 45.3 percent. From 2008 to 2020, the federal votes became 50.6 percent Republican to 47 percent Democratic.
However, when you look at the Council of State offices during those same time periods, Democrats garnered 53.8 percent between 1984 and 2004 to Republicans 45.4 percent, while between 2008 and 2020, Democrats got 50.9 to Republicans 48.7.
This pattern of Federal Red vs. State Blue is well known in North Carolina. For a prime example of this bifurcated electorate, you need only go back twenty years, to 2000's and 2004's general election to witness Republican George W. Bush win the state's presidential ballot and Democrat Mike Easley win the gubernatorial contest.
In fact, in 2004, Bush and Easley both won their races by twelve percentage points each.
Which brings me to another key aspect that could unlock the mystery of Cooper's win: the state's history of split-ticket voters. Granted, in elections since 2008, North Carolina has become more 'nationalized' in its electoral habits: meaning, how a voter casts a ballot at the top of the ticket for president is likely to stay with that party down the ballot.
In some preliminary analysis of 2020's general election, the dynamic of Trump's county percentage almost perfectly aligns with Republican Dan Forest's county performance.
But while Trump won the state by 1.3 percentage points, Cooper won by 4.5 points, meaning there are still enough split-ticket voters in the state to continue the state's rich tradition of a bi-partisan voting pattern (granted, though, not anywhere near the scale of 2004's swing). Even with the dynamic of nationalization of the state's politics, there's still a viable group of swing voters who can tilt the state to one party over the other. And candidates, especially for state-wide offices, should know that dynamic as well.
With a deeper dive into the general election's data (especially precinct-level returns, which I'm working on right now), we should be able to get more clues as to potentially why the state continued its historic trend of Federal Red and State Blue, especially in looking at where Cooper performed better than Biden did. A blog post on that aspect will be forthcoming.
But for this Atlantic piece, the lack of inquiry into a state's politics is always notable when it comes to outsiders attempting to get the lay of a land from 30,000 feet, without getting a guide who really knows the landscape.
Beyond the contributors to this blog, simply googling "North Carolina" and "politics experts" would bring up a list of folks to call upon (Duke University's POLIS Center for Politics maintains a great list). For just a small sample of the folks out there: Thomas Eamon at East Carolina University wrote a book on the political personalities of the state from the mid-twentieth century to current times. Or two leading pollsters of the state, David McClellan at Meredith College, who runs the college's poll, or Jason Husser who directs the Elon University Poll. Other close watchers of North Carolina politics include Andy Taylor and Steven Greene of N.C. State University, Pat Mitchell at Appalachian State University, Deondra Rose, Mac McCorkle, and Kerry Haynie at Duke University, Martha Kropf and Eric Heberlig at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Peter Francia at East Carolina University, among many other academics with an interest in this state's politics (note: if you are a political scientist in NC who studies the state, please let me know and I'll be happy to make this a running list of experts).
Or, if the author wanted to get a journalistic point of view, recently retired Jim Morrill would have shared his three decades worth of covering the state's politics at the Charlotte Observer to give some thoughts, as well as Rob Christensen, long-time reporter and columnist at the other leading newspaper in the state (The Raleigh News and Observer) and who has written a book on the paradox of the state's politics.
To the larger point: there's plenty of thoughtful and expert analysis for understanding what is going on a particular state. North Carolina is fortunate to have a wide variety of smart and dedicated individuals who can give their perspectives and thoughts about what makes this state tick politically. Just web surfing or picking up the phone will likely result in finding out that what you think you've discovered that "hidden secret" is really out there in plain sight.
Hopefully future outsiders/journalists would do well to give any of these folks a call, an e-mail, even a DM via Twitter, to get a perspective on the state's politics to answer the questions that they are seeking to understand.
Or they could just jump out of an airplane, sans parachute, and make just as much of a splash that this article made in trying to explain the politics of the Old North State.
Dr. Michael Bitzer holds the Leonard Chair of Political Science and is a professor of politics and history at Catawba College. He tweets at @BowTiePolitics.