What happened to Democrats in North Carolina: “It was a total effort that failed down ballot”

North Carolina Democrats and progressive organizers this year had hoped for a repeat of the 2008 election, when Democrats won in the state up and down the ballot. Instead, they saw several victories for Republicans.

“We didn’t win the presidency,” said Robert Dawkins, the political director of Action NC, an advocacy group focused on anti-poverty initiatives and voter outreach. “We didn’t gain any progressive seats in the House, state Senate; most of the black candidates that ran for judges didn’t win. It was a total effort that failed down ballot.”

Ahead of Election Day, polls projected positive results for Democrats in North Carolina — on November 3, President-elect Joe Biden led President Donald Trump in FiveThirtyEight’s state polling average by 1.8 percentage points, Democratic US Senate candidate Cal Cunningham led incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis by anywhere from 2 to 6 percentage points, and incumbent Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper was regularly recorded as having double-digit support.

Of the three, only Cooper won, and by 4.52 percentage points. Biden lost by 1.34 percentage points, Cunningham by 1.74 percentage points, and Republicans maintained control of the state legislature.

The losses for Democrats weren’t due to low turnout; in fact, turnout was up, with 75 percent of eligible voters — 5.54 million people — casting ballots. According to the North Carolina state board of elections, Democrats expanded their voter base by nearly 500,000 compared to 2016, while Republicans gained about 400,000 more voters. And a Carolina Population Center analysis found about 1.8 million new voters (Democratic, Republican, and unaffiliated) registered compared to 2016.

There was expanded access to polling sites, with early voting locations being added in cities and efforts to facilitate transportation for those lacking it on Election Day. A number of activists told me there were fewer instances of outright voter suppression than had been feared, and that wait times to cast ballots generally weren’t long.

None of that was enough, however. Many I spoke to in the state said they believe the results showed the problem was not about enthusiasm or turnout, but about strategy, difficulty overcoming the consequences of past elections, and, most importantly, timing.

Three things Democrats could have done better in North Carolina

Unlike North Carolina, Biden was able to win in Georgia, defeating Trump by 0.25 percentage points. According to activists and organizers in North Carolina, the difference between the two states was at least partly self-inflicted.

Take Democrats’ outreach strategy in each state: Dawkins said Georgia deftly implemented a policy-centric approach that could have been employed more effectively in North Carolina.

“In Georgia, from the start of the new year in January, everything, every campaign, if they were talking about why a neighborhood needs a speed bump, it was, ‘It’s not going to change until you register to vote. And here’s a card, register to vote,’” Dawkins said. “It was surgical.”

A similar strategy led to Democrats’ last big win in North Carolina in 2008, according to Dawkins. That year, the Democratic Party won the presidency, a US Senate race, the governor’s chair, and maintained control of the state’s General Assembly.

Dawkins said that year, “I don’t care if we’re talking about a pothole, or I don’t care if we’re talking about the light rail here, or whatever it was, got tied to, ‘And we need to vote to get this man in office.’”

That year, Barack Obama was on the ballot, and this method of winning votes was made easier by the enthusiasm created by his candidacy. This time, voters weren’t quite as animated by their choices.

Ahead of the election, Kevin Jones, the first vice chair of the Nash County Democratic Party, told me he was concerned about the level of enthusiasm for the Democrats on the ballot, particularly Biden.

“It’s bad,” Jones said. “If Donald Trump needs 15 electoral votes to win the presidency and it comes down to one vote in North Carolina, it won’t be my vote that gets him in there. But, you know, I don’t feel too good about it.”

But there remains a sense that a different strategy could have overcome that gap. Obama wasn’t on the ballot in Georgia this year either, and the state nevertheless flipped blue for the first time in nearly 30 years. Bennett Carpenter, the lead organizer for the progressive political group Durham for All, said his organization worked to highlight how Democratic policies would help voters — and saw success with it.

“People are so clear, especially in this moment, on the issues facing our communities, they’re loud and obvious,” Carpenter said. Acknowledging that many in their community are frustrated with a lack of progress on those issues, Carpenter added that Durham for All saw success in “sharing messaging around, ‘We can make change happen, we can work together’ … it’s a bridge to bring people over kind of the arc from disillusionment to hope and possibility.”

But Dawkins believes it should have been executed more broadly. Marcus Bass, the executive director of Advance Carolina, a progressive advocacy group focused on empowering Black communities, said he saw the problem as coming from the top. He believes that the national Democratic Party’s “offering of the Trump-or-else ticket, without really providing a deep response to some of these longstanding issues, hurt the efforts of turnout in North Carolina.”

And Todd Zimmer, co-director of the rural progressive advocacy group Down Home North Carolina, noted that Democrats’ single statewide success, the reelection of Gov. Roy Cooper, can be seen as a testament to the effectiveness of a policy-centric approach.

“Cooper has shown that he will fight for Medicaid expansion, that he’ll stand up, even if he can’t win that fight with a divided General Assembly,” Zimmer said. “I think he was rewarded by North Carolina voters because he’s seen as someone who understands how important that issue is … [and] his response also surely helped. Because North Carolinians approve of his handling of the coronavirus and oppose the reopen movement, by and large.”

A number of organizers also said Democrats hurt themselves. Organizers in many swing states have complained post-election that the Democratic Party relied too heavily on consultants and operatives from outside their states — and I heard similar lamentations about the national party’s strategy in North Carolina.

Bass argued party leaders miscalculated in hoping the top of the ticket would buoy down-ballot candidates. And while national leaders were generally given credit for investing in the state, North Carolina organizers said that money was often not used wisely and that staff and consultants arrived too late in the year, with too little understanding of the communities they’d been embedded in to do much good.

The issue, they said, and as Florida state Sen. Annette Taddeo told Politico, is that “you can’t just show up a month before the election and expect people to be excited to vote for you.”

Perhaps the most important issue was one of time, according to many organizers. They said flipping North Carolina can and will happen, once they’ve had a few more years to do so. Durham for All was limited in part by being a relatively new organization, Carpenter said — it was founded only four years ago. Down Home North Carolina is about three years old. And many of the progressive organizations they partner with are around the same age or newer.

“In the places where we’re really building that infrastructure, I think we’re seeing real gains,” Carpenter said. “A lesson to me is that that infrastructure takes time and resources and permanent year-round work.”

Carpenter said the hope is that in four years, with continued work and engagement, the results of North Carolina’s elections will be radically different. And in Georgia, organizers told me that time — coupled with consistent work — was the secret to their success. Deborah Scott, the executive director of Georgia Stand-Up told Vox’s Anna North that turning Georgia blue was a 15-year effort.

As Lewanna Heard-Tucker, chair of Georgia’s Fulton County Democrats, told me, “At the end of the day, this has been a long time coming for Georgia. It didn’t just happen overnight.”

Democrats were also hurt by some things beyond their control

While there are certainly opportunities Democrats and organizers can continue to pursue, their efforts were also complicated by factors outside of their control.

Chief among these was the coronavirus pandemic, which forced organizers and party officials to scrap their plans for registration and motivation and to hastily come up with new strategies.

“Right when we started [outreach efforts] Covid hit, which threw a wrench in some of our plans, particularly because our initial plan had been really focused on door-knocking as the way that you can really meet people where they’re at and build relationships,” Carpenter said. “And so right from jump, we had to really switch to primarily phone-banking and text-banking and from in-person events to virtual.”

For Durham for All, those efforts were more effective than they might have hoped. And Bass noted that while the pandemic made organizing difficult, it allowed Advance Carolina to engage in ways it might not otherwise have been able to. “Taking us out of physical spaces,” said Bass, “helped build a broader base, in some cases, where groups that typically would just be meeting in private spaces now are online.”

But for other organizations, the transition was more difficult. Zimmer said Down Home North Carolina moved to a “relational turnout model” where about 800 leaders were given access to an app to help support them in outreach to friends, family, and others they had personal relationships with. The organization also moved an outreach strategy based around conversations on race and class it had planned to use in person to the phones.

“I think that was to our disadvantage, frankly,” Zimmer said. “I think that those tactics are powerful and strong, but that doors is a really important part of our electoral process. And so I wish we could have a do-over and could be on doors.”

And Dawkins noted that many other organizations struggled as they “drastically moved off of a tried-and-true and proven method of door contact and phone-banking and switched over to more mobile mobilization work, which I don’t think paid off.”

Much of that mobile mobilization work consisted of “what we call souls to the polls,” Dawkins said — meaning organizations worked with pastors and other community leaders to put together marches to polling places. “That drastically hurt,” Dawkins told me, “because what you found was the people that were showing up and taking part in these marches to the polls and souls to the polls were people that were already gonna vote.”

Because of pandemic- and funding-related challenges, Action NC was ultimately not able to match its normal level of voter engagement. “Normally we shoot to register between 15,000 and 20,000 people a year. This year, we reregistered 6,500. So that was a big hit,” Dawkins said.

Still, statewide, registration was up, buoyed in part by the state’s nearly 400,000 new residents since 2016. Turnout increased dramatically as well. In the rural communities Down Home North Carolina serves, Zimmer said, “in a lot of cases [there was] an over 100 percent increase versus ’16.” Overall, Carpenter said, “We brought 100,000 more folks into the races than the right wing did, which meant that when it comes to statewide races, we were able to really narrow the gap — but still not close it.”

Closing that gap was complicated in part by the past. While Democrats won resoundingly in 2008, they lost badly in 2010, when Republicans took control of the North Carolina’s General Assembly. These lawmakers oversaw redistricting after the 2010 census, redrawing maps to benefit the GOP — first along racial lines and then along partisan lines after their initial effort was invalidated by the US Supreme Court for diluting the voting power of Black North Carolinians.

In 2012, a Republican governor won, giving the GOP complete control of the state. New voting constraints, including a voter ID law, followed in 2013. These were struck down in 2016 by the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals for targeting “African Americans with almost surgical precision.” A modified version of the voter ID law was then instated via ballot measure in 2018. It’s currently being fought in court — and as a result, was not in effect for the 2020 election.

Nevertheless, this reality made it feel as though Democrats and organizers for progressive causes were playing against a stacked deck, their voting power diluted and many citizens unsure of whether they had the documents needed to vote. Carpenter said it “for sure” hurt Democrats in the most recent election.

North Carolina activists are in for a decade of tough fights

Many organizers, like Carpenter, see the 2020 election as the catalyst for greater change in the state and the start of years of organizing work and court battles in order to make North Carolina more competitive for Democrats.

Legal challenges to the state’s voter ID law are set to continue in state and federal court — and advocates hope to lobby for greater access to voter registration. For example, online voter registration was made available this cycle for North Carolinians with driver’s licenses, a policy change Carpenter called “an improvement that still didn’t fully address the structural barriers that prevent particularly people of color, poor working-class people, and young people from registering and voting.” Expanding that access would make registering new voters easier ahead of the 2022 races.

Carpenter also spoke of working to expand Democrats’ voter base. Biden was clearly able to grow his base of support in historically Democratic counties but struggled more to flip back Obama-voting counties Trump won in 2016. In many of those, Trump built upon his 2016 vote totals; for example, in Robeson County, which Trump swung by 21 percentage points in 2016, he beat Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by 4 percentage points. In 2020, he defeated Biden there by 18.6 percentage points.

“If I have a takeaway from this election, it’s that we need to continue to do work to persuade people who might be voting for Trump that actually, our politics offers them a better path towards a more hopeful and prosperous and happier future,” Carpenter said. “I think we need to have the audacity to believe that our vision can be more powerful and more compelling than the siren call of white supremacy.”

Perhaps the most immediately pressing issue for organizers and Democrats will be the fact that the GOP will retain control of the General Assembly.

When the new districts are drawn following the release of the 2020 census results, Republican lawmakers are likely to attempt to neutralize Democratic power in places where Biden significantly increased his vote share over Clinton, like Wake County, and to minimize the role new Democratic state residents have on elections. Dawkins said he and other activists expect to “go back to court and fight over that.”

That means in the short term, organizers and local Democratic officials need to play where they can win, Carpenter said, adding that the key question is, “How can we actually be mobilizing for real change in the places where we do have decisive governing power as we’re continuing to build that grassroots infrastructure at the local level?”

And in the long term, Zimmer said, “There’s a lot of conversations happening in some of the spaces I’m in right now about 10-year strategies because there’s a sense that North Carolina will change but that we have to organize and build strategically in order to get there.”

For many I spoke to, that strategic building will involve outreach, education, pooling resources with like-minded organizations, and the careful recruitment of candidates that reflect the communities they are running in and that have a nuanced grasp of policy.

The ultimate goal, Carpenter said, is to be in a position “four years from now, eight years from now, where we’re continuing to grow the movement, grow the leaders, grow the infrastructure that can not just win one election, but actually continue to win real change for North Carolina.”

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