GOP Narrows Voter Registration Advantage in Competitive North Carolina

President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Fayetteville Regional Airport, Sa
Evan Vucci/AP Photo

The Republican Party under President Donald Trump has narrowed the voter registration gap with Democrats in North Carolina, a prime 2020 battleground.

North Carolina, which has long been an outlier in the normally conservative south, was once reliably safe for Republicans at the presidential level. Between 1976 and 2016, Democrat White House hopefuls only carried the state twice. The GOP’s dominance remained intact even as Democrats continued to find success in state and local races in North Carolina, long after much of the southern United States became inhospitable to the party in the 1990s.

That status quo, however, was upended by Barack Obama’s initial presidential campaign in 2008. Running as a candidate of “hope and change,” Obama became the first Democrat since former President Jimmy Carter to carry the state on his way to the White House. Even though Obama’s margin of victory was razor-thin, only slightly over 14,000, it signaled that North Carolina, partly due to large-scale in-migration from other areas of the country, had become a swing state.

Since that race, North Carolina has shown no indication of losing its competitive status. In 2012, Republicans under Mitt Romney narrowly carried the state by less than 90,000 votes out of more than 4.5 million votes cast. Four years later, Trump did slightly better. In that contest, Trump bested former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by more than three percentage points. Even though the margin was higher than Romney’s in 2012, the president only carried the state by roughly 173,000 votes out of more than 4.7 million votes cast.

Although the presidential race is expected to be just as close in North Carolina this year, recent statewide developments signal that Trump and Republicans down-ballot have cause for optimism.

Voter registration data from the North Carolina Board of Elections indicates that the state is now more Republican than it was in 2016. Overall, as of September, Democrats have lost roughly six percent of their total registered voter population since the last presidential election. Republicans, on the other hand, have expanded their registered voter population by more than three percentage points in the same period.

From March of this year to the present, Republicans have added more than 95,800 voters to their rolls, compared to only 48,244 for Democrats. Over the same period in 2016, the GOP had only added 54,157 voters to 38,931 for Democrats.

The GOP’s dominance has shown little sign of diminishing even as Democrats kick their general election efforts into gear. Throughout the month of September alone, the GOP added more than 37,200 voters to its rolls, while Democrats only added a little over 25,200 to their rolls.

Despite the gains, Democrats still hold a registration advantage of more than 403,000 active voters across North Carolina. The Democrats’ advantage, though, is not as daunting as first impressions might lead to believe.

In 2016, Democrats held an even larger registration advantage, roughly 243,000 voters more on Election Day, but Clinton was still unable to carry the state against Trump. During that race, Clinton received 46 percent to Trump’s 49 percent among Tar Heel voters. Clinton’s performance was nearly two percentage points worse than Obama’s in 2012, despite the fact that more voters turned out overall.

Some North Carolina-based political strategists and activists attribute the drop in registration to the Democrats’ image as a national party. Myrna Campbell, chairwoman of the Haywood County Democratic Party, told the Smoky Mountain News in January that registering votes in western North Carolina has become more difficult because the party was being perceived as out of the mainstream.

“I think the Democrats have allowed Republicans to brand us as being socialists,” Campbell, whose county has lost 17 percent of its registered Democrats since November 2016, told the outlet. “We haven’t been able to counter that, even though we are the party of social programs … but we have allowed Republicans to cast them in a negative light.”

Since turnout in 2016 was higher than in 2012, the Democrats’ backslide in registration could force the party to rely on independent and crossover voters, more so than usual, to achieve victory.

Wayne King, a partner at Fidelis Government Relations who until recently served as a top congressional aide to now-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, told Breitbart News that in as competitive of a state as North Carolina, elections were decided, in part, on turnout.

“I think it’s going to be very difficult for [Democrats] to increase voter turnout. They were at an all-time high in 2016 in the suburbs,” he said. “Then you have urban areas that also were an all-time high in 2016, so they really have nowhere to go, in my opinion. Where do they get their voters from this time?”

King added Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign, seemed to be coming to the same conclusion, as evidenced by recent efforts to engage rural voters across the state.

“You’ve got Dr. Jill Biden, the former vice president’s wife, coming to North Carolina, going into rural communities,” King said. “They obviously are trying to make a play for that to expand their electorate, but they’re going to have to up their game. Rural voters are Trump voters.”

That strategy, though, is fraught with risk. In 2016, Trump won the state’s rural voters handily over Clinton. Exit polling from the race shows that 58 percent of rural North Carolinians voted for the president, compared to only 39 percent for Clinton.

More importantly, however, if Democrats are scouring for votes in rural communities, it draws into question their standing among independent and non-affiliated voters. Four years ago, Trump carried North Carolina on his way to the presidency because of better than expected support from such voters.

On Election Day 2016, non-affiliated voters made up nearly a third of the state’s 6.9 million voter population. Exit polling from the race shows that Trump carried 53 percent of North Carolina’s self-identified independents, compared to only 37 percent for Clinton. Trump’s pull among independents in North Carolina was higher than the 46 percent, to Clinton’s 42 percent, that he garnered among the demographic nationally.

Since 2016, the growth in North Carolina voters registering as non-affiliated has dwarfed the number of Republican and Democrat registrants. Between Election Day 2016 and October of this year, more than 336,000 individuals registered as non-affiliated in North Carolina.

Rep. Greg Murphy, a Republican running for reelection to North Carolina’s Third Congressional District, told Breitbart News that independents would be pivotal in deciding who wins the state this cycle.

“I think that elections are won, not only in North Carolina, but across the country, by independent voters,” the congressman said. “Independent voters are those that don’t want to be identified with one party or another. They say, ‘Hey, I’m my own person. I want to look at individuals, and that’s how I’ll make my vote.’”

The congressman added that the Republican message under Trump, which has focused on law and order and the economy, was geared to appeal to such voters.

“You have to look at what people want when they wake up in the morning,” Murphy said. “They want safety, security; they want to be able to put food on their table and live their lives. They don’t get caught up in the emotional nonsense … and that’s what the Republican Party has promised.”

On the issue of security, in particular, Murphy argued that independent voters, specifically suburban women, were unlikely to embrace the Democrats under Biden because of the response the party has had to the protests and riots that have swept across the country since earlier this year.

“If you look at suburban women, the soccer moms, those who are concerned about their family’s safety and security, especially for their children, they’ve seen what the left has promised them,” Murphy said. “We’ve seen Democrats tell law enforcement to stand down so rioters could just destroy parts of our cities, we’ve seen that across the nation.”


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