North Carolina Democrats are frustrated. It’s not hard to see why.
Since 2008, when Barack Obama narrowly won the state and Kay Hagan beat Elizabeth Dole by a more comfortable margin, Democrats have fought hard but lost every subsequent presidential and Senate race in the Tar Heel State. In 2010, Republicans won their first majorities in both houses of the General Assembly since the 19th century. Ever since, Democrats have organized, raised money, and recruited candidates. They’ve screamed and hollered. They’ve litigated. Yet legislative control remains out of their reach. Even in 2022, running in districts redrawn by Democratic court order, they lost ground in both chambers.
Democrats have also enjoyed some victories, mind you — for governor, attorney general, Supreme Court, and key offices in urban counties. They’ve hardly been shut out of power in North Carolina. But under our state constitution, the legislature is the most important branch of government. And after a fleeting Democratic interlude, the state’s highest court is now solidly Republican again, blocking what had been an ongoing progressive effort to convert the judiciary into a policymaking body.
For complex social phenomena such as election results, there is no single explanation. Democrats and Republicans have competed vigorously in North Carolina for more than half a century. Partisan affiliations, political networks, regional patterns, and mobilizing issues have changed over time.
Here’s something that hasn’t changed much since I began covering state politics in the 1980s, however: Democratic candidates tend to fare better when defined as nonideological centrists. They tend to lose when defined as big-government progressives, either by themselves or by their Republican opponents.
Most North Carolinians aren’t keen on increasing the size, scope, and cost of government. The most recent evidence comes from the John Locke Foundation’s latest Civitas Poll. It included two questions that Gallup has been asking its samples for decades.
Here’s the first one: “Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think the government should do more to solve our country’s problems. Which comes closer to your own view?” In Locke’s sample of likely voters, 61% of respondents said the government was trying to do too many things, while 27% said it should do more. The rest were unsure.
Here’s the second question: “Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society, and others think the government should not promote any particular set of values. Which is closer to your view?” Opinions here were more mixed, with 38% picking the first answer and 48% picking the second.
Cross-tabulating the two questions produces the following five groups of North Carolina voters. Traditionalists say government is doing too many things and that when it acts it should promote traditional values. They made up 30% of the sample. Their polar opposites, Progressives, favor more government and oppose the promotion of traditional values. They were 16% of the sample. Libertarians (25%) dislike activist government and its promotion of traditional values. Populists (6%) like both. The remaining voters, whom I’ll label Centrists for want of a better term, declared themselves unsure about one or both questions.
While most Traditionalists reliably vote Republican and nearly all Progressives vote Democratic, the other groups exhibit a mixture of partisan preferences. On the government activism question, most Republicans were against it, most Democrats were for it, and unaffiliated voters tended to agree with Republicans. Regarding government promotion of traditional values, 63% of Republicans said yes while 62% of Democrats and 54% of independents said no.
These are general predispositions, of course. Candidates, campaigns, and context matter a great deal. And all human beings can exhibit cognitive dissonance — saying yes to a long list of proposed government actions, for example, while continuing to believe government as a whole is too intrusive.
Still, as long as Democrats run as big-government candidates, or can be easily defined as such by their opponents, they’ll be running uphill.