Carolina Curious: What Makes North Carolina A Purple State?

Carolina Curious: What Makes North Carolina A Purple State?

12:33pm Feb 25, 2020
FILE (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

This week on Carolina Curiouswe take a look at what makes the Tar Heel state so purple. Listener Kennette Thomas asks:

“Why is it that historically it seems as if North Carolinians will often elect a Democrat for the position of governor but then elect a majority Republican house?”

Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer tells WFDD’s David Ford it’s a classic case of “divided government.”

Interview Highlights

On divided elections:

South Carolina is a very Republican state. And so, you're going to have the Republicans control the legislature and governor's mansion. That’s unified party government. North Carolina has typically tended to see very divided elections. In 2000 and 2004, for example, George W. Bush won this state, but then a Democrat, Mike Easley, won the governorship. And there we're talking about ticket-splitting voters willing to vote for one party at one level of political office and then another party for another level. Now, here in North Carolina, it's been since 2010 that the Republicans have been able to control the state legislature through gerrymandering. So, a lot of us would look at that and say the maps for the legislature are very much pro-Republican. But in most recent times, particularly with Roy Cooper's election in 2016, a Democrat was elected to the governorship. So, North Carolina has kind of what I would almost term a bipolar political habit in terms of being very willing to vote for the individuals at times rather than the political parties. But over recent elections, we've been seeing that party loyalty really tightened up, and I think we’re in a new North Carolina.

Is North Carolina still considered a purple state?

I think it still applies to North Carolina. I think we will see the statewide races really decided probably by less than five percentage points. Remember that Barack Obama in 2008 won with less than half a percentage point. Mitt Romney in 2012 won by two percentage points. And Donald Trump won with about three and a half percent. So, if any statewide official wins with more than I would say five percentage points, that's almost considered a landslide. And I think North Carolina is kind of indicative of some national trends. We're a very competitive state when you talk about the statewide races. When you get down into the congressional level and the state legislative level and the districts, that's much more of, well, one party is going to control a district over another party. 

On the history of North Carolina politics:

If you go back to the beginning of the 20th century, it was solid Democratic control and that was part of the solid Democratic South. By the time you get to the late 1960s, early 1970s, the Republican Party begins to become very competitive. North Carolina elects Holshouser as the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. And so, we enter a kind of competitiveness in North Carolina from the 1970s up through the 2000s, where North Carolina would vote Republican at the presidential level, but Democratic particularly at the gubernatorial level. By 2008 and 2010's elections, I really look at those elections as kind of being the new North Carolina. It's competitive. Races are decided by very few percentage points, and this is just, I think, the norm for us moving forward in North Carolina politics. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: This transcript was lightly edited for clarity.

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