By Chris Cooper
The election is over. Well, mostly. Sure, the President hasn’t conceded, we will have recounts for a variety of offices in North Carolina, there might be some litigation (it is North Carolina after all), and we don’t have individual level data on who voted (for that, we have to wait for the holy grail of North Carolina politics, The Voter History File, to be updated). Despite these significant limitations, there are a few conclusions that I feel (fairly) safe to make at this admittedly premature stage.
Stability in Partisan Office-Holding
Remember the halcyon days before the 2020 election? North Carolina was represented by a Republican majority (but not supermajority) in the General Assembly, 2 Republican US Senators (one of whom was elected by a narrow margin), a majority Republican congressional delegation, a Democratic Attorney General, Secretary of State, and Auditor, a Republican Lieutenant Governor, Treasurer, Superintendent of Public Instruction and Commissioners of Agriculture, Labor, and Insurance. After months of intense rhetoric, astronomical campaign expenditures, debates over whether hot dog buns are a legitimate accompaniment for barbecue (conclusion: they’re not), and legal battles, the partisan distribution of North Carolina office-holders looks…identical to what I described above. I am not implying that the election didn’t matter, or that the specifics of the shifts in outcomes aren’t important (indeed, I think they are critical to our state’s future), but merely that 2020 didn’t mark a significant departure in the partisanship of office-holders in North Carolina. Simply put, the outputs of this election in North Carolina look similar to those from 2016.
Instability in the Way We Vote
Although election outputs were characterized by stability, the inputs showed a radical departure from previous elections. Most obviously, turnout was up—and not just by a little bit. Just shy of 69% of registered voters cast a ballot in 2016 (68.9%); that number skyrocketed to 75% in 2020. This turnout surpasses any election in recent memory.
Not only did a historically high number of North Carolinians vote, but the method they chose to cast their ballots represented a significant departure from the past. For example, Absentee-by-Mail (ABM) ballots made up just 4 percent of all of the votes for President in 2016. In 2020, almost a fifth of all ballots cast (19 percent) were ABM. One-stop voting was also slightly more popular in 2020 (65 percent of all ballots cast in 2020 v. 62 percent in 2016). Traditional election day voting was relegated to a tertiary role in 2020—making up just 16 percent of all ballots cast (compared to 33 percent in 2016). Although we do not know what this will mean for the future, it’s not much of a stretch to assume that some of 2020’s ABM voters will continue to use this form of convenience voting in the future.
The 2020 election not only saw an increase in turnout and a change in the way people vote, but also a change in who chooses to vote using each method of voting. In 2016, Donald Trump garnered 59 percent of the Absentee-by-Mail vote; in 2020, his share of the ABM vote dropped to 30 percent. As a direct result, Trump performed better in one-stop and (Trump won 52 percent of the one-stop vote in 2020 and 47 percent in 2016) and election day voting (65 percent in 2020 v. 55 percent in 2016). Hyperpartisanship in 2020, it seems, was not just limited to vote choice, but also applied to the way a person votes.
The Urban-Rural Divide Grew Once Again
It is no secret that the urban-rural divide has replaced the traditional regional divide that once defined North Carolina politics. 2020 saw that divide grow. In 2016, Donald Trump garnered his greatest support in rural counties and suffered the biggest losses in urban counties. In 2020, those gaps grew. Trump’s 2 party vote share (a fancy way to say I excluded the third parties so we can compare apples:apples across elections) declined an average of 4.6 percentage points in urban counties and 3.5 percentage points of suburban counties from 2016 to 2020. As for rural counties—his margin increased by 1.3 percentage points from 2016 to 2020. Simply put, the most Trump-friendly counties in NC became even more Trump friendly in 2020; the most Democratic-friendly counties in NC became more Democratic friendly.
We Have Fewer Swing Counties Than We Once Did.
From 2012 to 2016, 8 counties in North Carolina flipped their partisan allegiances for President (7 flipped from supporting Obama to supporting Trump and 1 flipped from supporting Romney to supporting Clinton). From 2016 to 2020, only three counties meet this admittedly simple definition of a swing county (Scotland, Nash & New Hanover). North Carolina is a purple state, but that does not mean that we have 100 purple counties; instead we have more solidly blue and red counties and fewer and fewer counties that reside in the purple.
People Were More Likely to Complete Their Ballot in 2020
A normal feature of elections is what is known as ballot roll-off, the tendency for voters to fill out the top of their ballot, but skip some offices farther down the ballot. For example, in 2016, 6 percent of the people who voted for President did not vote for state Treasurer. Given the astronomically high turnout in 2020, many expected roll-off to be higher in 2020 than it was in previous years. Now that the votes are (mostly) counted, it appears that the opposite is true. In fact, roll-off was cut in-half in 2020—only about 3% of the people who voted for President did not vote for Treasurer. Although I won’t go through all of the offices here, suffice it to say that the decline in roll-off isn’t just evident in the Treasurer’s race, but holds throughout the ballot (and yes, that includes US Senate). This is good news—although North Carolina voters may have been motivated to turnout by the action at the top of the ticket, they continued to exercise their democratic responsibility down the ballot in record numbers.
This wrap-up is really more of a looking forward. As I noted at the outset, lack of data availability, time and perspective don’t allow me to address many of the most important questions coming from this election. I plan to add more thoughts—here and elsewhere—as we have more daylight between us and the election outcomes. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to hit refresh to see if we have a final winner in the State Supreme Court Chief Justice race.
Dr. Chris Cooper is the Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University. He tweets at @chriscooperwcu.