Viewpoint from Justin King, Research Fellow at Carolina Forward
The NC State Board of Elections recently released the full data file from the 2022 election. While 2022 was (mostly) a disappointing year for Democrats in NC, analysis of the post election data provides some optimism for future election cycles.
Let’s begin first by talking about the US Senate race in relation to NC General Assembly districts. Precinct-level data indicates Cheri Beasley was attracting voters that were also voting for Republican candidates down-ticket. In 54 of the 120 State House districts, Cheri Beasley was the leading vote getter. However, legislative Democrats only won 49 of the 54 districts that Beasley carried. There are 11 House districts in which Cheri Beasley received greater than 46% of the vote share. Of those 11 House districts, the Democratic State House candidate ran behind Beasley in 10 of them, despite nearly all those contests being two-person races. If Democrats were successful in winning those 11 seats and holding their existing 49, Democrats and Republicans would tie for the House majority at 60 seats each.
In the State Senate, Beasley won 21 of the 50 districts, which would have blocked a legislative supermajority had each Democratic candidate rode her coattails (example: Senate District 7, New Hanover County). In Senate Districts 3 and 11, Beasley received greater than 46% of the vote share. The Black Voting Age Population (BVAP) of SD-3 is 42.33%, which historically should have resulted in a win for Democrats – and yet Republican candidate Bobby Hanig won by 5 points. This is directly attributable to depressed voter turnout, which we’ll discuss in a moment. But first, it’s notable that SD-11 is a part of one of the few county pairings that broke in favor of Democrats during the redistricting process. That district is winnable in 2024 – but Democrats will need turnout among Black voters in Nash and Warren counties to return to a more “normal” level.
Identifying and understanding which voters opted for Beasley at the federal level but Republican candidates at the legislative and (we assume) judicial level is vital for Democrats in future cycles. This is the second cycle in a row where Democratic candidates at the state legislative level consistently underperformed the leading federal candidate (e.g., Biden in 2020). Republicans won every legislative district that was carried by Ted Budd at the federal level.
The Turnout Problem
Turnout among registered Democrats across North Carolina was a decidedly mixed bag. Mecklenburg County turned out at nearly five percentage points below the statewide average, which left tens of thousands of votes on the table for Democrats. Compounding the overall decline of voter turnout in Mecklenburg, Black voter turnout in Mecklenburg was down nine points from 2018. State House District 98 in northern Mecklenburg was decided in favor of Republican John Ray Bradford by just 660 votes. Just a very minor improvement in the overall or Black voter turnout in Mecklenburg would have flipped that seat for Democrats. HD-98 is one of those five House districts won by Beasley.
Black voter turnout, while coming in at 42% statewide, only accounted for 17% of the voting electorate in 2022. Conventional wisdom holds that, for Democrats to have success statewide and at the legislative level, Black voter share of the electorate needs to be above 20%. Yet there were big drops in Black voter turnout from 2018 to 2022 in places like Nash County (-8%), which helped the GOP flip a state House seat and solidify a state Senate seat (SD-11). The same scenario happened in Pitt County, where Black voter turnout was down six percent from 2018. State House District 9 in Pitt was decided by 354 votes, helping the GOP flip another incumbent Democratic seat – a district President Biden carried by three points.
One bright spot for Democrats is that voters under the age of 30 accounted for nearly 10% of the electorate in 2022. That is not as high as 2018, but a vast improvement compared to the 2014 midterm (which was just 8.1%). Voters under the age of 30 helped power big Democratic victories in states like Michigan.
As we look towards 2024, bringing Black voters and those under the age of 30 back out to the polls will be critical for Democrats to compete effectively statewide and at the state legislative level. Democrats running at the federal level should study what Cheri Beasley did to attract “soft” Republican votes and build on her campaign’s margin.
Winning Democratic coalitions will always look meaningfully different than Republican ones, and by necessity, they’re harder to assemble. They are multiracial, for one – a dimension of complexity that Republican campaigns can mostly ignore, as registered Republicans are still more than 90% white. Democrats must also attract a wider range of views and perspectives. If they wish to remain competitive, Democrats in North Carolina will have to not only convince their voters to actually vote, but revitalize the basic machinery their campaigns run on. Otherwise, the 2020s will be a long decade indeed.
Justin King is a Sampson county native and Johnston county resident. You can find him on Twitter at @JustinKingNC.