This year's presidential election saw Georgia go blue for the first time since Bill Clinton secured its electoral votes in 1992. Yet, in the South's other most competitive contest, President Donald Trump eked out a narrow win with the closest margin of victory of any state he carried. The rest of North Carolina's electoral outcomes cast more of a purple hue over the state, with a mix of Republicans and Democrats winning statewide seats. While pundits analyze what Georgia going blue means for the rest of the South, North Carolina's complex electoral history shows that for the Old North State, the future is really anyone's guess, thanks to the historical push and pull of reactive politics in the state.
In political history, actions often produce reactions. In 1948, North Carolina delivered the lowest percentage of support of any Southern state for Strom Thurmond's segregationist Dixiecrat presidential bid. A year later, political scientist V.O. Key published his landmark study "Southern Politics in State and Nation," in which he labeled the state a "progressive plutocracy," stating that North Carolina "has a reputation for fair dealing with its Negro citizens."
The next year, 1950, however, saw the opposite reaction emerge in the Democratic nomination battle for a U.S. Senate seat that pitted Frank Porter Graham, known for his anti-racist views, against race-baiting Willis Smith. Aside from race-baiting tactics, which included a campaign flier saying "Wake Up White People . . . Frank Graham Favors Mingling of the Races," the Smith campaign was notable for the introduction of a young campaign aide, Jesse Helms, who shaped North Carolina's conservative politics for the rest of the 20th century. Smith narrowly won the Democratic nomination runoff battle, showing that Key's description had missed some of the state's complexity.
The mid-20th century also saw what scholars Merle and Earl Black called "The Great White Switch": conservative White southerners began migrating from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. This regional realignment came into stark relief in 1964, when, first Thurmond switched parties, and then five deep Southern states flipped for conservative Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater.
Like many other White Southerners, North Carolina conservatives saw increased rights for African Americans as an affront to Whiteness, as evidenced by the strong 1968 showing of segregationist third-party presidential candidate George Wallace in the eastern part of the state. As these disaffected conservatives increasingly identified with the Republican Party, national figures such as Richard Nixon and Helms (who officially switched to the Republican Party in 1970) tailored their message to attract these voters. Helms's 1972 U.S. Senate victory was aided by his conservative editorials at the Capitol Broadcasting Co., which generated a loyal following of rural, conservative White Democrats dubbed "Jessecrats" who rebelled against the more liberal dynamics in the national Democratic Party.
But at the same time North Carolina's reactive conservatives never rebelled against changing social norms as quickly or strongly as in other Southern states because of the moderate tone struck by Democrats. In 1976, moderate Democrat Jim Hunt captured the first of four gubernatorial elections by earning 65% of the state's votes, 10% more than Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter earned. The key to success for Democrats in North Carolina was clear: striking a moderate tone.
Helms and Hunt epitomized an era of split-ticket voting. At the presidential level, North Carolina remained a solid Republican red thanks to Ronald Reagan's appeal and legacy, especially to Southern evangelicals, the region's conservative and growing suburbs, and realigned White conservatives. Yet, at the state level, North Carolina was a competitive Democratic light blue where moderates such as Hunt thrived.
When the two titans of North Carolina politics squared off in 1984's U.S. Senate election, the bloody campaign exemplified the state's divided political soul: Helms's staunch, hardcore conservatism against Hunt's brand of modernizing moderation. Appeals to White prejudices and traditional moral values proved Helms's winning strategy, but the 52-to-48 outcome showed how evenly divided the state was.
Observers described North Carolina's politics as a paradox of conservative instincts against a liberal reputation, a state of business progressivism, social conservatism and populism, or "traditionalists versus modernizers," all of which speak to the state's political personality of splintered and contradictory voting.
Two examples illustrated this pattern: After conservative Democrat Sam Ervin retired in 1974, his Senate seat alternated between Democratic and Republican occupants every election cycle until 2010, when Richard Burr won a second term and broke the streak. Second, in 2004, George W. Bush won North Carolina by 12 percentage points, while on the same ballot, Democratic Gov. Mike Easley secured his reelection by the same margin.
But 2008 marked the end of this level of ticket-splitting, as nationalized partisan dynamics and an impressive ground-game by Barack Obama flipped North Carolina at the presidential level for the first time since 1976. Yet, rather than heralding a long-term swing to the Democrats, North Carolina stayed true to its form: 2010′s tea party insurgency produced a wave election in which the GOP captured the General Assembly, enabling Republicans to put their stamp on North Carolina for years to come.
Since then, North Carolina has shifted from a state with a sizable split-ticket population to a razor's edge competitive state, where a few thousand voters can make or break a campaign — but one that at the federal level leans red.
Republicans have won seven out of nine presidential or U.S. Senate races since 2008, securing between 49% and 55% of the vote. Democrats won only in 2008 with barely 50% for Obama and 53% for Sen. Kay Hagan. At least at the federal level, the more entrenched partisanship of the era has produced smaller margins of victory but made it harder for Democrats to climb over the top. Conversely, Democrats have fared better in contests for state-level executive offices, winning 22 out of 40 such races in the same time frame.
In 2020, while Trump and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper both won, the margins were razor thin, a far cry from the 2004 Bush-Easley swing.
This all adds up to North Carolina remaining a battleground state for the foreseeable future. While some of their power is diluted, split-ticket voters will continue to influence down-ballot races, especially at the state level.
Just how much influence they wield will depend on North Carolina's rapidly changing demographics and organizing efforts. The expanding Charlotte suburbs fueled by the banking industry and the area growing thanks to technological and biotech facilities tied to North Carolina's universities are no longer reliably conservative. Young, post-Helms voters are increasingly attached to the area's educational and job opportunities. Yet the rural areas of the state, which include much of eastern North Carolina and the areas of the Appalachians (with a few exceptions), remain in conservative hands.
If North Carolina follows Georgia's lead, the strength of the state's Black voters, concentrated primarily in the 1st Congressional District, along with the increasing generational replacement of boomers with millennials and Generation Z voters, could cast the state a deeper shade of purple. But as we saw with an explosive turnout (nearly three-quarters of the state's registered voters cast ballots in 2020) and Trump's narrow victory in the state, the forces of reactionary politics remain strong in North Carolina — and predictions of the state following neighboring Virginia into the deep-blue category are, at the very least, premature.
Only one thing is certain: The push and pull of reactive politics will keep guiding the Tar Heel State.
Bitzer holds the Leonard Chair of political science and is a professor of politics and history at Catawba College in Salisbury, NC. He is founder and contributor to OldNorthStatePolitics.com, a blog that focuses on North Carolina and U.S. politics. Summey is a historian and faculty fellow in the Lloyd International Honors College at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This piece was written for The Washington Post.