By Kari Travis
Raleigh, NC – Take a deep breath. It’s finally over.
North Carolina’s 2020 election was a mixed bag full of unexpected results. Most voters are confident in the outcomes, but others aren’t so sure, a new poll shows.
Some things we know for certain. President Trump won 50% of the state’s vote, turning North Carolina red in the contest for the White House. Simultaneously, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper won another term in the Executive Mansion, collecting enough votes to edge Republican Dan Forest by more than four points.
In the state’s judicial races, Republicans swept at least seven of eight contested seats on the N.C. Court of Appeals and the N.C. Supreme Court. Republican Paul Newby leads incumbent Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, though she refuses to concede. She has challenged the results. Even if Newby survives all the recounts with a lead, the fate of the election will sit with the Democrat-majority state elections board.
Few pollsters saw a Republican win coming in North Carolina, especially not in appellate races. Clearly, Democratic analysts were reading the wrong surveys, said Brad Crone, a Democratic political strategist in Raleigh.
Even conservative polls showed Democratic candidates with healthy leads over Republicans before Election Day.
“You could’ve written the Supreme Court polls on Charmin and gotten better use out of them,” Crone said during a presentation sponsored by the N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation.
A majority of North Carolina voters believe the elections were conducted fairly, a post-election poll from Civitas Institute shows. The poll was conducted Nov. 12-14 by Harper Polling and surveyed 513 likely voters in North Carolina. The margin of error is +/-4.33%.
Two-thirds of respondents said they’re confident in the election. But a troubling number of voters — three in 10 — are less confident. Conservative voters were more likely to express concern about the election’s fairness, pollsters found.
That skepticism isn’t surprising. Before Nov. 3, Democrats put up a massive fight across the state. They outspent Republican campaigns on every level. They successfully extended the state’s deadline for accepting absentee ballots.
But the extra time did little to help them.
Voters in the 2020 election turned out in record numbers, casting 5.5 million or so votes in North Carolina. That’s a 75% turnout rate, show data from the N.C. State Board of Elections. The state has 7.36 million registered voters, up from 6.92 million in 2016. In that General Election, 4.77 million people — 69% of registered voters — cast ballots.
This year’s high turnout may have tightened the races.
The closest election in North Carolina was the race for N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice. The potential defeat, as we’ve said, isn’t sitting well with Beasley.
It’s events like these that may cause voters to question election outcomes. Even so, says Civitas Institute President Donald Bryson, “It’s heartening that a wide majority of North Carolina voters believe that such a contentious election cycle was administered fairly.”
And voters can walk away from 2020’s results with insights that may help inspire more faith and resiliency in the next election.
Legislative gains for the GOP
North Carolina turned red on multiple levels of the election, particularly in the legislative races. The outcome surprised those who expected a blue wave for Democrats. Polls showed Republicans trailing Democrats going into Election Day. But after results were tallied, Republicans saw a gain of four additional seats in the N.C. House, securing a 69-51 majority. Democrats took just one additional seat in the N.C. Senate, leaving the GOP with 28-22 control. The gains still don’t give the GOP a supermajority — which they’d need to overturn Cooper’s vetoes — but their hold will provide a check on executive power.
“Voters made a clear choice,” said Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. “Our record for the last decade is clear: a booming economy that we intend to rebuild, lower taxes, and giving parents, even parents from lower income households, the same opportunities for their children’s education that the wealthy enjoy.”
The wins were especially significant since Republicans were running under voter district maps redrawn to favor Democrats.
The Democratic Party’s mapmaking expert made the current maps, Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, said in a news release Nov. 4.
“Hopefully this puts to rest the decade-long redistricting saga,” he said.
Split-ticket voters yield unexpected results
The choice was clear in the races for the state legislature. But some tickets were split as voters who checked the box for Republicans also re-elected Cooper, a Democrat, to serve another term as governor.
Surprising as it is, the Trump/Cooper voter played a significant role in the election, Bryson said in a Nov. 19 presentation.
Cooper has received much criticism for his economic shutdowns and emergency orders amid COVID-19. But that criticism wasn’t enough to turn unaffiliated and Democratic voters away from Cooper, Civitas found in its poll. The Trump/Cooper voter is somewhat less likely to be Republican, making up just 30% of those respondents who said they voted for both the president and the governor. About 38% were Democrats, and 33% were unaffiliated voters. These voters are working class, a demographic that’s key to Trump’s populist viewpoint, Bryson said.
The split vote between governor and president isn’t extraordinary, said Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. When it comes to voting for governor, residents may be more focused on electing someone they think will “get things done.”
Dan Forest also didn’t make for a strong candidate against Cooper, Kokai and Bryson said. The Republican should have focused his messaging on how he would strengthen the state economy and rebuild small businesses affected by Cooper’s shutdowns. Instead, he became known as the anti-mask candidate. That may have hurt him with some key demographics, especially among voters 65 and older.
Outspending your opponent doesn’t guarantee victory
Republicans won big on Election Day because they knew in-person campaigning yields the best results. This was evident in the Senate race between Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham. Cunningham spent nearly $50 million to market himself before voters. Tillis spent $18 million.
Tillis won by 95,635 votes.
Similarly, Cooper outspent Forest by huge margins, dropping close to $50 million on the race. While the governor still outstripped his opponent, Forest — who spent $4.46 million in the same timeframe — narrowed Cooper’s lead to four points. Pollsters predicted Forest would lose by double digits.
Republicans beat Democrats because they knew how to run a disciplined ground game, political scientists have said again and again. Most Democrat campaigners spent their summer indoors, holding virtual meetings and avoiding in-person events. Republicans, like Democrats, used mail, television, and cable to reach their base. But they also got out. They knocked on doors. They energized voters.