‘A coin toss’ in NC: Surge in unaffiliated voters makes state a battleground in 2020 election

North Carolina, a historically Republican state, is now considered a political battleground as unaffiliated voters have become the fastest-growing group among its booming population — portending an unpredictable 2020 presidential election, according to experts.

“Like many other Southern states, North Carolina voted almost exclusively Democratic from 1876 through 1964 and almost exclusively Republican beginning in 1968,” according to 270towin. “The initial shift was largely in response to white conservative voter uneasiness with the civil rights legislation passed in the mid-1960s, which was effectively exploited by the Republicans ‘southern strategy.”

In 2020, North Carolina is predicted to be a toss-up, despite the state having voted for a Republican president since 1980, excluding the 2008 election when the state chose Barack Obama.

“In 2008, Barack Obama reversed the trend of Republican dominance here (although just barely), defeating John McCain by about 14,000 votes out of 4.3 million cast (49.7% to 49.4%). In percentage terms, it was the 2nd closest race of the 2008 election (behind Missouri),” according to 270towin.

North Carolina’s voting history between 1789-2012.

“In 2004, George W. Bush won this state by 13 percentage points. It was a blowout,” Dr. Michael Bitzer, professor of politics and history, pre-law adviser and chair for the department of politics at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina said. “Nobody would say that that was a competitive presidential race in this state. The same year, the same election for the governor’s race, the Democratic incumbent Mike Easley, won by 13 percentage points as well. So you had kind of a split ticket phenomenon going on in the state.”

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“And that was very much the tradition, the pattern, of North Carolina politics up to 2008,” Bitzer said. “With Barack Obama’s ground game in the state, he made it very much a battleground state of what it is right now in the terms of, he increased the electorate and he was very much a polarizing figure for many North Carolina voters both on the Democratic and the Republican side.”

“Basically after 2008, and particularly 2010s, Tea Party insurgency within the Republican Party, North Carolina voters kind of sorted themselves into their respective corners. Traditional Democrats who were very Democratic stayed in their corner Republicans went into their corner, and typically anywhere from 5 to maybe 10% of the electorate is persuadable — swing voters,” Bitzer added.

And while North Carolina has not swung in the past few elections, experts believe the 2020 race is going to be very tight.

North Carolina has seen a demographic shift

North Carolina has a total of 15 electoral votes and between 2009 and 2019, North Carolina's population grew by 10% compared with 6.3% growth nationwide during that same period, according to USAfacts.org.

“North Carolina, like the United States as a whole, is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. At least 38% of North Carolinians are Black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, or multiracial,” according to data gathered by the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management.

On top of the state becoming more racially diverse, it is also becoming a popular spot for younger generations to settle down — especially in the urban areas of the state.

“North Carolina, demographically, is tending to mirror the nation as a whole in terms of generational cohorts. But it is also still very much an attraction state, meaning that people are moving here significantly,” Bitzer said.

“We’re about to hit 10 million citizens in our census count, most likely, and that growth just continues to be driven ultimately by the urban and the suburban areas of the state,” Bitzer said.

“In terms of generational dynamics, I think North Carolina again kind of mirrors the country in that, if you look at the 7 million registered voters in the state, 35% of them are under the age of 40, and so that’s Millennials and now Generation Z that is coming into the electorate. That’s a plurality of the 7 million. Boomers are about 30% and Gen Xers, who tend to fall in between Boomers and Millennials, are about a quarter of the electorate,” Bitzer said.

But will the younger people flooding into North Carolina swing the state blue? Bitzer still believes that’s a big unknown.

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“Right now, North Carolina tends to be a center, slightly lean-Republican state, but if Millennials and Gen Zers, who are overwhelmingly, typically more Democratic in affiliation, if they show up at their respective weights, we could go from center-lean-Republican to center-center or maybe even center-lean-Democratic in this state,” said Dr. Susan Roberts, professor of political science at Davidson College, in Davidson, N.C.

Urban areas are flourishing, attracting younger potential voters

North Carolina’s rural and urban divide is prominent and mirrors what experts say is typical when it comes to the demographic makeup of those areas: rural areas are Republican and holds a bit of an older population, while urban areas attract a younger, Democratic bunch.

“And so if you start thinking about the solid South, the South of the confederacy, the new South, this is a different South,” Roberts said. “North Carolina is not the state it was in 1976. and I think that says a lot about where we are, it really accentuates the kind of urban, rural divide, because I think that’s gotten more pronounced in North Carolina, with the in-migration.”

Roberts said about 42% of residents in the state were not born within it.

“When you look at it and say, urban areas, central urban areas and then suburban county areas, that only leaves 21% of North Carolina that you could call rural,“ she continued. ”Over the last say, 10 years or so, over 20 or 30 of those have not shown, they’ve had a net loss in population and in growth. So I think we’re becoming more urbanized but there’s still some important rural, agricultural pockets say in the Appalachian region,“ Roberts said, citing Charlotte as a particular area that is a draw for new, young residents.

The largest county to look at as far as a potential blue stronghold in the state goes is Mecklenburg County, where Charlotte is located, according to Roberts. “You’re going to expect those to be quite blue, the urban area, the very blue Mecklenburg County,” Roberts said.

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“I think you look at some of the areas, like the 9th district, around Mecklenburg County, because that’s where you have a lot of the suburbs from Charlotte, and you look at, even the 12th district, Davidson (College) is in the 12th district, and you can see some suburban areas there, Greensboro. You’re going to see the Republicans not do so well in the research triangle because that’s where you have Duke, you have University of North Carolina, you have N.C. State, and so that’s going to be a more liberal area,” Roberts said.

Unaffiliated voters make it hard to predict which way the state will swing

Experts say unaffiliated voters now make up a bulk of the 7 million registered voters in the state, far surpassing those who have registered Democrat or Republican, which makes it even more difficult for political scientists to predict which way the state will go ahead of the presidential election.

“Well, I think, first thing I would say is North Carolina hasn’t swung in a very long time,” Roberts said. “I think it’s a battleground state because, North Carolina voted for Obama in 2008, but the last time before that they voted for a Democrat for president was Jimmy Carter in 1976, and a lot has changed in that length of time.“

“I think if you look at the demographics, North Carolina is a state that has 36% Democrats, 33% unaffiliated and 30% Republican, and the growth there has been from the two anchors to the middle, as part of party identification,” she continued.

According to Roberts, the unaffiliated voter group has become the fastest-growing cohort in North Carolina.

“That also means, for political scientists, it’s much more difficult to predict exactly what might happen in 2020,” she added. “The unaffiliated voters, we call them unaffiliated in North Carolina instead of independent, we’re talking roughly the same thing, but usually they lean on either side.”

Bitzer echoed Roberts’ assessment of what is driving the growth in unaffiliated voters in North Carolina.

“Millennials and Generation Z are fueling the rise of unaffiliated voters in this state,” said Bitzer. “In North Carolina, you can register Democratic, Republican or unaffiliated, along with three other minor third parties.”

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Supreme Court vacancy, social justice movement could play a role

In the wake of the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, experts believe the push for continued women’s rights and abortion rights will likely remain the same in North Carolina, but could be a motivating factor for some voters.

“North Carolina has some very strict laws about access to abortion, but if you look at North Carolinians’ attitudes on abortion — should it be legal in all cases or illegal in all cases — it’s about a 50/50 split,” Roberts said.

“There’s really nothing to say there that that’s going to be a big issue for voters necessarily,” Roberts continued. “It may be the kind of issue that would really motivate some people. I don’t think it’s going to change the never-Trumpers, but you think, Trump won North Carolina by 3.6 percentage points. There were people that didn’t really like Trump, but they liked Hillary Clinton less, so they could say, ‘Oh, I don’t really want Trump but I’m going to vote for him,‘ so if you’re a Republican that doesn’t really like Trump, this gives you a reason to say, ’But I’m pro-life, so I’m voting for Trump.’“

Roberts believes a new conservative Supreme Court Justice will be appointed before the inauguration of the next president.

“I’m not positive but I think that’s likely,” she said.

“But I think that’s something to be a motivating factor for some of these people,” Roberts said. “To say, I think Joe Biden’s all right, but do I want to get out of bed and go and vote that day? But I think this gives some people a reason to say get out and vote.”

“I think it will certainly energize, on the Republican side, the base supporters that particularly, President Trump and other Republicans need, but I think that there’s also potential backlash of energizing and mobilizing Democrats and particularly, maybe independent women in suburban North Carolina,” Bitzer posited. “How this appointment plays out is probably going to be a good test case or case study here in North Carolina as to the dynamics.”

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The widespread protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in May jumpstarted a racial justice movement across the country, and North Carolina was no exception, especially since it holds one of the largest populations of students who attend HBCUs in the country, according to Roberts.

And while both Roberts and Bitzer believe social justice movements throughout the country could certainly sway voters, it isn’t likely to tip the scales one way or the other for North Carolina.

“Black Lives Matter is alive and well in college towns and I think there is a lot of activity on that front in terms of some of the major cities, but if you look at the more rural areas, that’s not as real to them,” Roberts said. “They see it on TV, they don’t see it in their streets and so, that’s more of a story from somewhere else.”

“I think certainly underlying everything are these issues of social justice, or law and order, of the role of Black Lives Matter along with law enforcement,” Bitzer said. “I think a lot of that is baked into North Carolina’s electorate already because as new issues come about, honestly the numbers really have not moved one way or the other.”

Mail-in voting ballot requests could provide clues

Experts believe North Carolina won’t have any major issues transitioning to largely voting by mail due to systems already in place in the state.

“North Carolina actually has a system by which you can track your absentee vote, so you can see, it’s almost like, ‘Your package is in the mail, it’s here, it’s there,’ so you can see when it’s returned and you can see when it’s counted,” Roberts said.

“It’s an unprecedented number of absentee ballots that have been requested, and I believe it’s around over 50% of the ballots that have been requested, have been by Democrats,” Roberts stated. “And then you have undecideds that make up the second tier, and then you have, I think it’s 17% Republicans.”

“I think in conjunction with mail-in votes and how many requests they’ve gotten, let’s see who turns out, let’s look at the early voting period,” she added. “So if you calculate that all together, if you look at the numbers of absentee ballots, heavy voting on the first few days, that’ll give you a signal as to where the election is headed.”

Roberts believes due to the pandemic, more people are coming to a decision earlier as to whom they will vote for.

“I think that’s why the ads are coming hot and heavy right now, maybe a few of them in the last week of the election,” Roberts said.

“North Carolinians have actually been voting for several weeks now,” Bitzer added. “And we have broken all of the records when it comes to absentee/by mail voting, which is our form of vote by mail.Roberts said 2020 has seen “well over a million requests” for absentee ballots in the state.

“In 2016, we had a total of about 230,000 requests for absentee/by mail ballots. Right now, out of those million requested ballots, about a quarter of them have been returned, about 250,000, and that has already exceeded the number that were accepted in 2016,” Roberts said. “So, the likelihood is we could be looking at 30, maybe 40% of all the ballots cast come through mail-in voting.”

Bitzer believes if mail-in voting continues at the current rate, the state should expect to see between 70-80% of ballots returned well before Nov. 3.

COVID-19’s potential impact on the election in N.C.

In regards to how the COVID-19 pandemic has been handled, Roberts said that, more so than in the past, many residents support Gov. Roy Cooper’s COVID-19 guidelines for businesses.

FILE - North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper listens to a question during a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, May 26, 2020. (Ethan Hyman/Raleigh News & Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

“North Carolinians have been more supportive of Gov. Cooper, a Democrat, than they have many other places around the country, and I think that’s especially important when you note that, Gov. Cooper said, unless you socially distance, unless you wear a mask, you cannot have the Republican National Convention here,” Roberts said. “Despite that fact, that the businesses around Charlotte and North Carolina, there’s still more trust in Cooper to help with the pandemic-handling than there is Donald Trump.”

“The state as a whole tends to mirror the dynamics of the national issues,” Bitzer added. “Certainly at the top of the list I think is COVID-19. The impact of coronavirus. I think for the most part the majority of North Carolinians have been accepting of some of the restrictions that the Democratic governor has placed on the state.” Bitzer said Democratic and unaffiliated voters have largely been supportive of Cooper’s “slow-go approach.”

“It’s only when you get into the Republican base that they are much more about, reopen the state and reopen it now,” Bitzer said.

Bitzer also said that it seems a majority of North Carolina agrees that public health takes precedence over economic health amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That’s going to play a crucial role going into the election. But I think like the nation as a whole, North Carolina’s election is pretty much going to be a referendum-kind of an election. It’s going to be a referendum on President Trump, it’s going to be a referendum on our current incumbent sitting U.S. Senator Thom Tillis and also our sitting governor, Democrat Roy Cooper,” Bitzer said.

Amid the ongoing pandemic, Roberts believes health care will loom large in the minds of North Carolina voters in 2020.“I think it’s health care,” Roberts said. “I think there’s been a lot of disparity in terms of matching Medicaid funds and it’s not necessarily an older population, because if you look at it, but I think people want access to healthcare even if they’re actively using. Over 50% of the population are Millennials or Gen X-ers. And so, you have fewer Boomers, fewer Silent Generation, not that many of the young people yet and that’s the group that wants health insurance and are looking for good jobs.”

For Republicans and Democrats, mobilization of voter base is key

While it will be hard to predict how any battleground state will vote, experts say if either Biden or Trump want to win over the state of North Carolina, they truly need to focus on one thing — and that’s mobilizing their voters, which Republicans seem to have done already.

“Trump needs to keep that energy going under his base and maybe hope for more of a base turnout. At this point, registered voters, OK, but you’re not going to persuade voters, you just need to mobilize voters,” Roberts stressed.

“All you have to do is look the records of the Republican National Convention and see how many North Carolinians, average North Carolinians, were videotaped and talking about how, ‘I used to vote for Democrats and now I’m going with Trump,’” she added.

Roberts also pointed out Trump’s dedication to visiting the battleground state not just for elections, but for ceremonies such as in Wilmington, N.C. which he, as well as U.S. Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt, dubbed a WWII Heritage City.

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“Traditionally and historically, North Carolina has been a Republican state, at the presidential and certainly down the ballot at times, but they need to be cautious about their suburban voters,” Bitzer warned. “Have they alienated any of those urban suburb voters, particularly White women in those areas? And then, do they lose any of their margins in the surrounding suburban counties?”

Bitzer believes the Republican Party could lose the “central cities” by an even larger gap than what was seen in 2016.

“Can they make those up, particularly in the surrounding suburban areas?” Bitzer asked. “The rural counties are already heavily Republican — the problem is trying to get even more voters out of those fewer and fewer voters in rural counties.”

“North Carolina is more important to Trump and the Republican Party than it is to the Democrats,” Bitzer said. “Because if the Democrats win North Carolina, it is likely that Florida potentially has gone Democratic, it’s likely that Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and Michigan, have all gone Democratic as well. There’s a potential for Georgia to be competitive. So, North Carolina is kind of in an odd mix. But if it goes Democratic, it means that Biden has probably secured the 270. If it goes Republican, that means Trump still has a potential shot at 270, but it’s a narrow window of trying to get to that point.”

“If the Democrats can mobilize the energy, that energy (social justice movements) in North Carolina, even if they’ve (Republicans) got people in rural areas, I think that will go a long way to helping them fight in November,” Roberts said. “It is going to be as tight as people say it’s going to be.”

Experts believe the Democrats will have to come up with a very “rigorous ground game” to swing North Carolina voters blue.

“One thing that Hillary Clinton did, she took North Carolina more or less for granted,” Roberts said. “She visited about 10 times, Trump was here about 12 or 13, but she didn’t have the real presence in terms of on the ground. So the Democrats are going to have to say, I’m paying a lot of attention. But Joe Biden has not visited that much and there was a recent article that, voters said, I want to see Joe Biden come, I don’t want to vote for someone I haven’t seen or have a chance to see.”

Bitzer and Roberts agree that the race in North Carolina will be won by an exceedingly narrow margin, regardless of who the victorious candidate turns out to be.

“Honestly, I think it’s a coin toss,” Bitzer said.