Monday, March 4, 2024

What We Know about NC's Early Primary Votes and What We Might Expect for Tuesday's March 5 Election Day

By Michael Bitzer

With North Carolina's in person early voting now concluded, and the trickle of mail in ballots yet to come along with Election Day ballots, we can look back and see what the dynamics of early voting has to say about who, and which party, are showing up with banking primary election ballots.

Just under 700,000 early ballots have been accepted as of Monday, March 4 for all party primaries, with the division breaking heavily to the Republican Party primary side--not surprising because of the slightly contested presidential campaign between former president Donald Trump and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, the last standing major GOP candidate against the former two-time party nominee.

Data from NCSBE compiled by author

As usual, the in person early ballots are the overwhelming majority of early votes cast, with 54 percent coming in the Republican Party primary, with more Democratic Party primary voters using mail in voting. 

In comparing 2024's early votes to 2020's vote methods, Republican Party primary early ballots have increased nearly 100K over the same vote method from four years ago, again not surprising as the then incumbent president was not challenged. This year, we see a similar dynamic on the Democratic side as the Republicans had four years ago, with over 203K fewer early in person ballots cast this year compared to 2020. 

For Tuesday's voting, it is likely we will see more Republican Party ballots cast, but the question will be will we hit nearly half-a-million as we did four years ago. 

Where this year's action appears to be is among the several open-seat primary contests for U.S. House districts, yet the largest percentage of ballots being cast in the 11th Congressional District, where first-term incumbent Republican congressman Chuck Edwards is being challenged within his party. 

The second largest percentage is from the 4th Congressional District, with Democratic incumbent Valerie Foushee. 

In breaking down demographic dynamics within the party primaries and their early ballots cast, some unique trends have emerged. For example, among gender and the selection of party primary ballots, women make up 54 percent of the total ballots cast, and have slightly favored the Democratic Party primary over the GOP primary.

Men, however, have overwhelming gone to the Republican Party primary ballot, by a 60-40 split. 

When it comes to race-ethnicity of early voters, it's not surprising that there's also a racial divide when selecting party primary ballots among North Carolina voters as well.

White non-Hispanic voters have overwhelmingly picked the Republican Party ballot, while Black/African American voters are solidly picking the Democratic Party ballot. Thus, we see what the racial-ethnic coalitions of party primary voters are like, in taking the party primaries and seeing the racial-ethnic composition within both. 

The Democratic Party primary coalition is 53 percent White to 39 percent Black/African American, which is more White than their voter registration race-ethnic composition of 40 percent White and 46 percent Black. The Republican Party primary almost mirrors exactly their race-ethnic composition, being overwhelming White (within the Republican voter registration data, registered GOP voters are 88 percent White). 

When it comes to generations, early voters have skewed heavily older: the mean age is nearly 64 years old, well in the Boomer generation.

There's no real difference between the two major parties either when it comes to mean age, with Democratic primary voters being 63 years old and Republican primary voters being 64. 

However, there is a rather interesting generational cohort dynamic at play in the early ballots.

Among voters 45 years old or younger, they went against the state-wide trend and picked the Democratic Party primary ballot over the GOP ballot. More analysis will be needed to see if this trend holds with Election Day ballots within the generations, but this is something that may align with the Democratic advantage that Millennials and Generation Z voters are showing in national data.

Two other factors that I'm pretty interested in tracking once the dust settles on this primary election and we get the final voter history data (probably at the beginning of April): where voters are casting their respective ballots from in terms of the 'regions' of the state, and especially where each party's ballots are coming from in terms of precinct partisanship. First, the 'regionalism' aspect to this year's early ballots in the party primaries.

The general trend in North Carolina politics is that the central cities (the Charlottes, Raleighs, etc.) are Democratic dominated, with the surrounding suburban counties to those urban counties (the Unions, Gastons, Johnstons) represent the most Republican region of the state, beyond that of rural counties (which are a close second in terms of Republican dominance). 

Using the designation of central cities, urban suburbs (those precincts inside the urban county but outside the central city limits), surrounding suburban counties, and rural counties, I could match about 94 percent of all ballots that have been accepted into one of these four categories. 

First, the fact that among all accepted early ballots cast, both the central city and surrounding suburban county precincts are evenly matched tells me that the dynamics of these two regions will be critical to see how the primaries play out. Again, we'll need to await the Election Day ballots and the full voter history data to make this comparison.

Among Democratic Party primary ballots, the central city precincts are dominating as expected, as are the surrounding suburban county precincts on the Republican side. This seems to indicate that both parties' bases are showing up in this primary election. Again, it's a wait-and-see the final tally on this dynamic when the full voter history data is available for study.

The other factor that I'll be watching is in terms of the partisanship of the precincts where the primary ballots are coming from. By "precinct partisanship," what I mean is how a North Carolina precinct voted for the combined U.S. president, U.S. Senate, and NC governor elections in 2020, followed by categorizing the two-party into the following categories: 

  • a precinct voting at 60 percent or greater for one party over the other (a strong partisan precinct); 
  • a precinct voting 55-59 percent for one party (a likely party-precinct); and, 
  • those precincts that voted between 50-54 percent for one party (a competitive precinct). 
Each of North Carolina's 2,600 plus precincts can then be assigned to one of six categories, represented in the below chart.

In terms of the early ballots accepted, both parties are seeing their early ballots come from their 'strong partisan' precincts:

For the Democratic Party primary, 47 percent of their early ballots accepted are from Strong Democratic Precincts (those that voted 60 percent or greater in 2020's Big Three elections). On the Republican primary side, a majority--51 percent--of their early ballots are coming from Strong Republican Precincts. 

In both party primaries, only 17 percent of the early ballots for each primary are coming from 'competitive' precincts. 

So, what could all of this mean for Tuesday's primary election?

First, we should think about what the potential turn-out rate would be for Election Day. We have the past four primaries and the turn-out rates:

Now, a few caveats: 2018's primary was in the "blue moon" election cycle, with no major state-wide contest on the ballot (such as U.S. Senate). Thus, 14 percent turnout was not unheard of. In the past two presidential primaries, 2016 was the most competitive, due to both the Democrats and Republicans having contested presidential nomination battles. In 2020, it was just the Democrats with a contest presidential primary. In 2022, there was a contested Republican primary for U.S. Senate. 

So, based on the above figures, I would probably say a safe bet for this year's primary (with only the Republican side having a 'somewhat' contested presidential nomination contest) would be in the neighborhood of 25 to 30 percent turnout. If we hit 30 percent or above, I'd say that's a good turnout rate, but would not expect it to go beyond 35 percent. 

One other data-point that we can look to the past is based on vote methods. As noted in the introduction to this post, in 2020, the bulk of primary ballots for both parties came on election day, but both parties were moving more towards 'banking their ballots' in primary elections with early in person ballots, as I explained in this previous blog post

With Republicans casting about 100,000 more early ballots than they did four years ago, and Democrats dropping by 203,000 early ballots, we may see Election Day give a plurality, or even a majority, of both party's ballots cast. But again, we'll have to wait and see.

One thing we know for sure: once the polls close on Tuesday for NC's primary election, it's a safe bet that on both sides of the political aisle, one thing is for sure: let November's general election get start in earnest in the Old North State.


Dr. Michael Bitzer holds the Leonard Chair of Political Science at Catawba College, where he serves as a professor of politics and history. He is on various social media platforms @BowTiePolitics.