Suburban surge drove GOP success
North Carolina has long been a political battleground — but the shape of that battlefield has changed significantly over time.
Fifteen years ago, for example, Democrat Mike Easley was completing his last year as our state’s governor. He’d cruised to reelection in 2004 with roughly 56% of the vote. Democrats were firmly in charge of both chambers of the North Carolina legislature and of 60 of the state’s 100 county commissions. They also comprised a majority of the state’s U.S. House delegation.
At the same time, however, Republicans comprised a majority of the North Carolina Supreme Court and held both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats. Even as Gov. Easley was winning his reelection for governor, President George W. Bush won reelection with the same share of the vote in North Carolina: 56%.
In terms of party registration, Democrats formed a plurality in March 2008 at 45%, with Republicans at 34% and 21% registered as unaffiliated. Because many of those Democrats and unaffiliated voters were centrist in inclination and willing to split their tickets, however, both parties had the potential to attract large winning majorities depending on the specific races and candidates involved.
Today’s electorate in North Carolina looks very different. It’s larger — 7.2 million registered voters as of March 2023, vs. 5.7 million in March 2008 — and less explicitly partisan. Unaffiliated voters comprise a plurality at 36%, with Democrats at 33%, Republicans at 30%, and the remaining 1% consisting primarily of Libertarians.
In terms of sheer numbers, there are roughly 126,000 fewer registered Democrats today than in 2008. There are 257,000 more Republicans and a whopping 1.4 million more unaffiliated voters.
So, does that make North Carolina a markedly more Republican state than it was 15 years ago? You can certainly advance such an argument. In addition to once again holding both U.S. Senate seats, Republicans form supermajorities in both chambers of our legislature, and have the majority on our Council of State, U.S. House delegation, state supreme court, and state court of appeals. The GOP also controls 67 of our 100 county commissions and an unprecedented number of other local offices.
Nevertheless, our state’s elections remain remarkably competitive. Statewide elections are often settled by a relatively small number of votes, as are many district and local races. And for all its success, the GOP has struggled to win the key offices of governor and attorney general.
We still have swing voters in North Carolina, and sometimes ticket-splitting can still be decisive. In 2020, for example, quite a few voters opted to reelect Roy Cooper while also picking Donald Trump for president and Thom Tillis for U.S. Senate. But the days of 56% majorities in high-profile races are probably over. Cooper got 51.5% of the vote in 2020, while Trump got 50% and Tillis 49%.
Now, if you fixate too much on the statewide trends, you miss dramatic changes at the local level. Consider that in 2008, Republicans held a majority on Wake County’s board of commissioners. Republicans were also in charge of several other county or municipal governments in urban areas.
Since 2008, the actual number of Republicans, not just their share of the electorate, has gone down in such populous counties as Wake, Mecklenburg, Guilford, Forsyth, Durham, Cumberland, and Buncombe. In most of them, the prospect of Republicans winning more than a handful of local offices now seems fanciful. Every current commissioner in Wake County is a Democrat, for instance.
So, how has North Carolina as a whole become less hospitable to Democratic candidates? Because outside of our urban cores, Republican strength has surged. No, I’m not just talking about rural areas, which taken together represent a declining share of the state’s electorate. The bigger political story is the rapid increase of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in fast-growing suburban and exurban counties such as Union, Iredell, Cabarrus, Gaston, Johnston, Franklin, Harnett, Alamance, Brunswick, and Pender.
Many of them used to be Democratic strongholds. No more.
John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history.