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Daily Journal

Cleaning Out My Notebook

Nov. 9th, 2012
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RALEIGH — Every election cycle, I end up with ideas and nuggets of data at the end that don’t make it into my initial post-election column, either because of timing or space. Now that we are several days past the election returns, here are some political morsels to chew on:

The Missing Voters. Despite all the hype from both sides about the importance of voting this year, some Americans didn’t buy it. Perhaps they thought President Obama was destined for reelection, or considered the presidential alternatives to be a disappointing incumbent vs. an untrustworthy challenger. So they had little motivation to vote for president, saw no other races on their local ballots that held their attention, and opted out of the process.

As a result, turnout was somewhat down in much of the country from 2008. At this writing, President Obama appears to have gotten about 8 million fewer votes on Tuesday than he got four years ago. Mitt Romney got nearly 2 million fewer votes on Tuesday than John McCain did four years ago. Keep in mind that these are comparisons of sheer numbers: because of population growth, a turnout rate equal to 2008 — and to the hoopla we heard all year — would have generated many more voters for both candidates in 2012. Didn't happen.

The president’s victory margin of 2 percent or so is also significantly less than the 7.2 percent margin of 2008. These numbers may change a bit as the final votes come in from California and New York, however. Romney's popular vote total may get close to McCain's, and Obama’s margin of victory will widen by a few tenths of a point.

Ground Game Effects. Given somewhat-lower voter participation, both parties were wise to invest in extensive efforts to turn out their bases. In most of the country, the Democrats and liberals demonstrated this year that they remain better at the ground game than Republicans and conservatives are, but the latter groups closed the gap a bit.

Here in North Carolina, an effective Obama For America (OFA) operation kept the presidential race close and forced Republicans to spend time and money in a state they would have preferred to stow away by summer. On the other hand, grassroots organizing by economic conservatives (such as Americans for Prosperity) and social conservatives (such as the North Carolina Values Coalition) probably resulted in thousands of conservatives casting ballots who otherwise wouldn’t have done so in 2012. That may well prove to be the margin of victory in one statewide race, for lieutenant governor, as well as some legislative and county commission seats that Republicans won by narrow margins.

Counting Counties. I continue to believe that trends in down-ballot races help to illustrate whether partisan shifts at the top are likely to be fleeting or durable. Until the 1990s, despite successes in some statewide elections, Republicans were simply not a competitive threat to Democrats in legislative and local races. That began to change in the late 1980s. In 1984, for example, Republicans had a great year at the top of the ballot. Ronald Reagan won North Carolina overwhelmingly. Sen. Jesse Helms defeated Jim Hunt. Congressman Jim Martin was elected governor. Still, Democrats won majorities on 77 of the state’s 100 county commissions that year.

By 1988, Republicans had increased their county-board share to 33 out of 100. In the Republican Revolution year of 1994, the share rose to 42, including the capital county of Wake. From 1994 to 2008, the GOP share fluctuated between the highs 30s and low 40s. Two years ago, the breakthrough came. Democrats ended the 2010 cycle with only 50 county commissions. Republicans had 49 partisan majorities, plus one county where an independent sided with the GOP. It was a striking illustration of North Carolina’s newly competitive politics.

I don’t have the full count for 2012, yet. I can tell you that the Republicans won a majority this year on the commission of the state’s third-most-populous county, Guilford, and seem to have captured another key urban board in Buncombe County. I’ll tell you the statewide standings ASAP.

Isn’t that special? Advocates of local tax increases tried running some sales-tax referenda in North Carolina’s 2012 general election. They mostly failed. Eight counties voted down proposed sales-tax hikes. Two said yes to quarter-cent hikes for various local needs, and Orange County set yes to a half-cent hike for transportation (no big surprise). You can expect local politicians to return to their somewhat-more-successful strategy of running tax-hike referenda in off-year or special elections, where turnout is far lower and the chance of passage is greater.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of Our Best Foot Forward: An Investment Plan for North Carolina’s Economic Recovery.