NC’s diversity keeps us guessing

First Posted: 9/22/2014

RALEIGH — If Republican Thom Tillis were running for the U.S. Senate from the state of North Piedmont, he’d be clearly favored to defeat incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan. Alternatively, if Hagan represented the state of Trianglia, she’d be such a shoo-in that we’d all lose interest in the race.

No, I’m not pining for a breakup of my native state. I’m delighted that North Carolina encompasses diverse communities. Indeed, to understand our state’s politics in the 21st century is to recognize that differences in history, economics, and demographics produce marked differences in political preference.

Two recent statewide polls, one by left-leaning Public Policy Polling and the other commissioned by the right-leaning Civitas Institute, demonstrate the effect. For starters, their topline results are similar. PPP has Hagan leading Tillis by 4 points in the Senate race, with Republicans (44 percent) and Democrats (43 percent) roughly tied in statewide preference for state legislature. Civitas puts Hagan’s lead at 3 points and has the GOP slightly leading Democrats statewide in a comparable question about down-ballot races.

When you drill down into the results by region, a fascinating pattern emerges. Among voters in the 919 area code, roughly corresponding to the Triangle area, Hagan has a double-digit lead in both surveys. In the Piedmont Triad (336 area code), the Charlotte region (704 area code), southeastern counties (910), and the coastal plain (252), Tillis had a double-digit lead over Hagan. In the western mountains (828), the race is close.

The pattern persists down the ballot. In most of North Carolina, Republicans are in a stronger position than Democrats in the generic vote for legislature or Congress. In the Triangle, however, Democrats have a sizable lead. This corresponds with what we know about party strategy and specific contests. Democrats are investing heavily in the state’s most populous county, Wake, in hopes of picking up seats in the General Assembly. At the same time, some Republicans in potentially competitive districts elsewhere in the state either drew no Democratic challenger this year or are heavily favored.

To some extent, these regional dynamics reflect long-standing trends. Even when Republicans were a clear minority party in North Carolina, they were often competitive in a swath of Piedmont counties running north from Charlotte along I-77 and I-85. In the Triangle, Durham and Orange counties have been core Democratic constituencies for decades.

But today’s differences are so pronounced that I think they also reflect factors specific to the 2014 election cycle. While you can find liberal pushback against the General Assembly’s passage of conservative legislation, only in the Triangle media market has it received saturation coverage. State government is a local story there, where public employees make up a disproportionate share of the workforce. In the rest of the state, the idea that North Carolina might pick its next U.S. senator based on what the state legislature did in 2013 strikes many voters as odd. To them, Hagan’s record on such issues as federal spending, Obamacare, military veterans, and foreign policy seems more relevant — and damning.

The political consequences of domestic immigration have changed, as well. From the 1960s to the 1990s, the influx of newcomers from the Northeast and the Midwest helped power the rise of the Republican Party in North Carolina. I remember a time in the mid-1990s when not a single county GOP chairman from Charlotte to Durham had a Southern drawl. More recently, however, newcomers have leaned more Democratic. They tipped the state into Barack Obama’s column in 2008, for example.

It remains impossible to predict this year’s electoral outcomes with any confidence. Hagan has opened up a statewide lead but remains in danger with her support averaging about 44 percent. And Republicans may do worse in legislative races than the current polling would suggest. Still, North Carolina’s political diversity will persist. Many voters will see the election results and wonder how “that person” could ever have won, given that nearly everyone they know voted for the other one.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.