Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Here's What We're Thinking About for November 3rd

Instead of a traditional run-down on the presidential and gubernatorial contests, the four of us decided to take a slightly bigger picture, and pose a series of questions about "what we're thinking about when November 3rd finally rolls around?" Here are some of our thoughts about what to be looking for and thinking about on the night the polls close; we didn't coordinate our questions and answers among ourselves, so if there's repetition, it's a pretty good bet that the topic is something worth considering very strongly. And yes, we could potentially disagree with each other, but we'll let the readers try and figure that aspect out. 

Michael Bitzer:

How do the four regions of the state—central cities, urban suburbs, surrounding suburban counties, and rural counties—perform based on their 2016 results? 

This dynamic has been on the top of my mind when it comes to thinking about the Old North State's politics. Based on some analysis that I've done, here are some graphics based on election results in each of the four regions across the state, first with the 2014 U.S. Senate contest between then incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan against Republican challenger Thom Tillis. 

And for the 2016's election, with the "Big Three" (presidential, U.S. Senate, and gubernatorial contests):

There are similar patterns among the 4 elections (US Senate from 2014, the big three from 2016): central cities go overwhelmingly Democratic while surrounding suburban counties go overwhelmingly Republican. Rural areas are Republican (but not as GOP due to significant minority populations in the eastern part of the state), while it's the urban suburbs that are the 'coin-toss' regions of the state. Particularly, I’m going to be looking at the urban suburbs and the surrounding suburbs, but in different ways: for urban suburbs, how do they move one way or the other from a coin-toss in 2016—or do they stay an even split? As to the surrounding suburban counties: can Democrats eat into the GOP margins in those areas? 

What's the size of NC's electorate? 

By all accounts, we should exceed the 4.7 million votes cast in 2016. How much of that is done by the end of early voting on Saturday, Oct. 31? Do we exceed a total of 5 million ballots cast both early and on Election Day? If so, by how much? I don’t think anyone has a clue, but it’s something to watch. I’ve heard estimates of up to 5.4M, which would be 700K more than 2016’s 4.7 million total; and that’s more than double the rate of growth we have seen in NC for elections from 2008 to 2012 and 2012 to 2016 (all of them grew by about 300K each subsequent presidential election electorate). 

How ‘nationalized’ are the voting results? 

Meaning, how much of a relationship, if any, between how Biden & Trump perform as do Democrats and Republicans down the ballot? NC is a highly nationalized electorate, but there are still a few (though not as many as back in the early 2000s) split-ticket voters out there in the Old North State. Speaking of which... 

How much partisan loyalty are there among self-identified Democrats and Republicans? How do the ‘independents’ split? 

If we don’t see 90% or more voting for party candidates, then that’s a potential sign, especially if one party is 'defecting' more than another. In 2016's exit polls, 90 percent of North Carolina self-identified Democrats voted for Clinton, while 94 percent of self-identified Republicans voted for Trump. 

And among the so-called "independents" in the state, they broke 53-37 for Trump over Clinton, with 8 percent voting third party--which seems very high. This year, how do the self-professed 'independents' go?  

What does NC's electorate look like racially, generationally, and by gender?

The best way to get that sense is via the exit polls, but make sure to what for the final ‘wave’ of data to come in (don’t rely on the first exit poll data because it can, and likely will, shift with subsequent data releases). 

In 2016, North Carolina's electorate was 70 percent White, 20 percent Black/African American, and 5 percent Hispanic/Latino, at least according to the exit polls. In my research using voter registration data files, voters who cast ballots were 71 percent White non-Hispanic, 21 percent Black/African American non-Hispanic, and 2 percent Hispanic/Latino. 

The other important dynamic to watch is among the generations, as defined by Pew Research Center.  In NC's 2016 electorate, 37 percent of registered voters were Boomers, 27 percent Generation X, 23 percent Millennials, and 13 percent Silent/Greatest generations.

The big unknown for NC's 2020 electorate: will Millennials and now Generation Z (otherwise voters under the age of 40) show up to their respective political 'weight'? Currently, these two 'youngest' generations are 36 percent of all registered voters, but they have not punched up to their respective weight in past elections. 

By gender, 2016's NC electorate was 54 percent female, 44 percent male, and 2 percent unreported. With the national narrative regarding women and their voting patterns, North Carolina has traditionally seen a gender gap emerge, as it did in 2016.

Will that pattern emerge again, and how wide is that gap?

Finally, what are the differences in early voting versus Election Day voting?

We will get the early votes (by mail and in-person) within the first hour after the polls close in NC (typically 7:30 PM). What are the margins in the races, especially the big three—presidential, US Senate, and governor for those votes? If the margins are pretty wide, can the Election Day votes tighten those margins?


 Whitney Manzo:

What effect will Covid-19 end up having on turnout?

As fall kicks into gear, the U.S. US reported its single highest number of Covid-19 cases on Friday, October 23. Cases in North Carolina are also rising, with the positive test rate back at 7.2% as of Sunday, October 25. These statistics may be cause for concern for those who intend to vote but have not actually done it yet. The pandemic is a large reason why there has been record-breaking vote by mail, but there are still plenty of North Carolinians who haven't voted yet. Will the latest news about new outbreaks and rising cases keep some voters home, especially on Election Day?

Should we be worried about voter suppression or intimidation on Election Day?

Several far right-wing and/or Q Anon-affiliated groups have announced that they plan to "watch" the polls on Election Day. The President also encouraged his followers to do so in the first debate. So far there have only been scattered reports of voter intimidation in North Carolina, but the State Board of Elections is concerned enough that they issued a memo reminding everyone what is allowed (or not) at the polls. I'm actually more concerned about foreign interference causing voters to stay home, but the potential for armed encounters or even violence may also affect turnout on Election Day.

How ‘nationalized’ are the voting results? 

While Bitzer is correct that there are still split-ticket voters in North Carolina- the most recent Meredith Poll estimates this number at 7% of the electorate- I would argue that this is very unique election. Considering the pandemic and the personality that is President Trump, I think this is going to be one of the most "nationalized" elections in recent history. Senate Republicans appear to agree with me. The one exception is the race for Governor; no matter how Biden does in NC, I expect Cooper to win re-election handily.

I'm also going to be keeping a close eye on the Gen Z turnout rate. This generation (aged 18-23) leans very liberal and heavily favors Joe Biden. If older Americans stay home due to fears of Covid-19 and more members of Gen Z actually turn out-- this election is predicted to have one of the highest younger voter turnouts ever-- it could spell real trouble for Donald Trump and the Republican Party as a whole. 


Chris Cooper:

What Will Happen in Ten Key counties?

Although North Carolina is undoubtedly a battleground/swing/squishy/purple/linchpin state, that doesn’t mean, of course, that every county follows this pattern of moderation. Instead, the state contains more than its fair share of red counties, a sizeable number of blue counties (often the most populous ones) and about 10 counties that are truly purple. One way to define these purple counties is to identify counties that “swing” within the same election (intra-election swings) or ones that “swing” between elections (inter-election swings). I’ll, of course, be watching the whole state on election night, but I’ll be watching these counties particularly closely.

Intra-Election Swing Counties

(Trump (R) ’16 & Cooper (D) ’16)

Inter-Election Swing Counties

(Obama (D) ’12 & Trump (R)’16 or Romney (R)’12 & Clinton(D) ‘16)







New Hanover










Note: Watauga is the only one of these counties that voted for Romney in ’12 and Clinton in ’16. Granville and Nash appear on both lists.

How much do the campaign and the candidates matter?

On paper, the race for North Carolina’s 11th congressional district shouldn’t be particularly competitive. It’s a district that, even in its current form, favors the Republican Party by a fairly sizeable margin (only one Democrat in Congress currently represents a district that favored President Trump in 2016 by a larger margin than NC-11). Nonetheless, there have been a number of accusations against the Republican candidate Madison Cawthorn—ranging from sexual misconduct to racism, to a pattern of lying. The Democratic candidate, Moe Davis, has hit hard on these accusations and, according to his internal polling, this election is extremely competitive (w/ Davis' polling showing him with a slight lead). Will it be enough to swing this district? If so, it will provide one indication that the candidates and the campaign still matter in American politics.

What About the Unaffiliated Voters?

Unaffiliated voters are the fastest growing group of registered voters in North Carolina politics. It’s hard to know exactly who they prefer, however. Polls are helpful, but most polls ask about “independent” rather than “unaffiliated” voters and therefore may provide a fuzzy indicator of this critical demographic. Some people (including me) use whether the voter voted in the Democratic or Republican primary as an indicator of their preferences. Using that metric, this may be a good year for Democrats as Unaffiliated voters chose the Democratic Primary over the Republican primary for the first time since 2008. This metric may also be fraught, however,  as Unaffiliated voters might have chosen the Democratic primary simply because the Democratic presidential primary was competitive whereas the Republican primary was not. Once the results begin to come in, I will be curious to try to tease out the behavior of this critical group of voters—doing so will not only tell us about what happened in the 2020 election, but may give us some clues about North Carolina politics moving forward.

Will the Democrats Cannibalize Their Vote?

It’s no secret—particularly to readers of this blog—that early and absentee voting is up in 2020. And it’s particularly up with Democrats. Democrats see much to cheer in this statistic—believing that higher turnout early may signify Democratic engagement more generally. Republicans often counter that the Democrats may simply “cannibalize” their election day vote as Democrats may vote early, but may not expand the size of their electorate. We’ll know an answer to this question on election night.

What Do the County Commissions Tell Us?

Most of the attention in North Carolina and national politics has been towards the top of the ticket, but there are a host of important down-ballot offices. I'll assume that folks are well-aware of the stakes for the General Assembly,  Council of State, and other offices, but additional set of offices I'll be watching closely are the county commission results. Democrats have been losing county commissions in North Carolina (whether measured as a percentage of all seats, or as a percentage of counties where they hold majority control) for the last few decades. Will 2020 be the year when the Democrats begin to claw back control of these critical offices, or will the Republicans continue their recent gain of North Carolina County Commissions? 

Susan Roberts:

Foremost on everyone’s mind is the size of the turnout, but we have a very good expectation what the numbers will look like. How they stack up against other battleground states? What sorts of records might the totals break in NC?  

What might we be looking for in the exit polls?

While pollsters know how to incorporate absentee and early voters into exit polls, 2020 might pose unique challenges.  Do the sheer numbers of absentee and early voting numbers significantly compromise responses, especially the numbers we are seeing in NC?  With coronavirus cases continuing to spike in NC would those who ordinarily respond to a pollster might reconsider answering exit poll questions.  

Perhaps the most important information exit polls could tell us in NC would be about the “suburban women” vote. Exit poll numbers from white college educated women would greatly inform this newly minted “suburban women” stereotype, women who are seemingly rejecting Trump in large numbers. Coupled with Michael Bitzer’s granular read of NC demographics, NC might prove one of, if not the best states to test this newest iteration of identity politics. The 2004 label “NASCAR Dads” proved to be a poor indicator of voting behaviors.

What will we know Election night and when will we know it?

Since polls close at 7:30, there will be national attention to N.C.’s initial results.  Can they provide an essential indication for the rest of the country? In 2016, N.C. was projected a Trump at 11:14. When will N.C. be called? It’s highly unlikely a winner will come out of Election night. The state has an early voting period which stretches from October 15 – Saturday October 31. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures the average period is nineteen days. If you calculate the unprecedented number of absentee ballots requests, registrations which favor GOP, and pre-election day processing of absentee ballots, what can we say about NC as a bellwether of the nation as a whole?

How will NC compare with the rest of battleground states in terms of demographics and votes? 

It seems highly unlikely NC will lose its battleground label, but what would it take for that to happen? Should Trump run the table of the top three races in the state, would NC lose its battleground status? Not likely since because of the increasingly significant urban-rural divide, one prevalent in varying degrees in all the pivotal states. A Biden – Cooper- Cunningham win could be considered as an exception resembling the Obama victory in 2008.  

Nationally, what will be the results of an electorate primed for a disputed election? 

In July Trump floated the idea of postponing the election, suggesting the results would not be settled for months if not a year. In the months since Trump has repeated said that he would not pledge to a peaceful transfer of power. Instead he said he would have to “wait and see” and more than hinted that a Trump would translate into a rigged election.  NC is one of many states with at least one or more of the 380 lawsuits nationwide. NC made national headlines when the early ballot rejections came from a disproportionate number of African American voters. A flurry of lawsuits from Republicans challenged voters’ ability to “cure” their ballots from witness signatures among others. Regardless of the resolution from all the lawsuits nationwide, voters are already questioning the legitimacy of voting in the lectin. Reverend William Barber warned of recent efforts at voter suppression in NC elections. A razor thin margin for Biden will undoubtedly result in mistrust if not anger.


For biographies of the four contributors, please see this page.