Five North Carolina political questions for 2021

By John Hood

Raleigh, NC – After getting many political predictions wrong in 2016, including but not limited to the results of the presidential election, I threw my long-cherished crystal ball out and started building a new one.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska

Figuratively speaking, of course. I stopped relying on the polling aggregator I built earlier the decade. I took fewer glances at the aggregators built by other pundits and political websites. Instead, I looked at a broader set of metrics — survey data about public attitudes instead of partisan preferences, for example, and trends in voter registration and behavior.

I also started talking to a more varied collection of sources, via phone calls and email. I cast a wider net. I took more seriously John Stuart Mill’s warning that while “everyone well knows himself to be fallible, few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility.”

During the just-completed 2020 political season, then, I was less confident in my predictions — and far more accurate. Surely the two things are related. I figured Republicans would do well in North Carolina’s legislative and judicial races. I figured Thom Tillis would be re-elected. I figured Donald Trump would not be. Turns out I figured correctly.

Still, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Over the past few weeks, I’ve gone fishing among my contacts again — casting my net widely for informed guesses about the coming year in North Carolina politics. There was reasonable consensus around five big questions, although not about the likely answers. Here are the questions:

• Will Roy Cooper sign a new state budget for North Carolina? Government has been operating under a budget originally enacted in 2018, then modified somewhat by “mini-budget” bills passed when the Democratic governor and Republican-led General Assembly found agreement. Cooper refused to sign full budget bills the legislature enacted because they didn’t expand Medicaid and raise teacher pay as much as he wanted.

By vetoing them, he sacrificed short-term gains (e.g. teachers got stiffed) in hopes of longer-term gains from a Democratic takeover of one or both legislative chambers. It was a bad bet.

• Will the General Assembly’s new legislative and congressional maps withstand legal challenge? While past litigation resulted in some constructive changes in North Carolina’s redistricting process — changes that legislative leaders vow to preserve when they redraw maps in 2021 — Democrats will certainly file suit no matter what the new districts look like.

Democrats will certainly file suit no matter what the new districts look like

I think legislative leaders would make a successful challenge less likely by adopting a neutral set of redistricting criteria as a separate bill early in the 2021 session, then applying them when the census data become available. But lawmakers may have other ideas.

• Will widespread immunization lead to rapid recovery in employment? Despite some reasonably good recent months of job gains, North Carolina’s economy is still down some 242,000 jobs from the start of the COVID pandemic. That comes to a painful 5.2% drop in overall employment. But the pain is far more acute for workers in accommodations and food service (down 21%) and arts, entertainment, and recreation (down 24%). If either government regulation or consumer reticence continues to keep those workers and businesses sidelined, expect strong lobbying for more state assistance.

• Will a new generation of higher-education leaders, including Peter Hans at the state’s public-university system and Thomas Stith at the community-college system, help their institutions effectively navigate the final stage of the COVID pandemic? For university students and their families, 2020 was a strange and frustrating year. They are probably thinking more about value for the dollar than ever before. As for community colleges, many face both new opportunities and challenging enrollment declines.

• Will the first few months of the new year feature multiple candidates running aggressively for the Democratic and Republican nominations to fill the Senate seat Richard Burr will vacate in 2022?

Oh, wait, never mind. Even my hard-won humility about political predictions won’t keep me from offering a solid “yes” to that question. Make that four unanswered questions in North Carolina politics for 2021.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and author of the forthcoming novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.