In the context of American politics, North Carolina is a middle state — which is not the same thing as saying North Carolinians are especially moderate. It simply means that our Democrat and Republican coalitions are roughly the same size, making our elections highly competitive and difficult to predict.

Consider stated party preference (a better predictor than party registration). According to Gallup polling, about 41% of North Carolinians identify as Democrats or say they lean Democrat. About 42% identity with or lean toward the GOP. The remaining indicate no preference.

Only six other states have partisan spreads of zero to one point in either direction. Massachusetts is the most Democratic state, with a net blue advantage of 29 points. Wyoming is the most Republican one, at +34 points.

Governing magazine approached the question from a different direction. Its analysts first estimated the partisan leanings of demographic groups in the electorate based on race or ethnicity, education and location. Then it ranked the states according to their proportions of such electoral groups.

The states most primed to support Democrats by this estimate included New Jersey, California, and Hawaii. The most Republican were West Virginia, Kentucky and Maine. North Carolina was smack dab in the middle at number 25.

As for ideology, there are many different ways to classify people based not on their votes but on their viewpoints. Some analysts ask a battery of questions on a wide range of issues and then look for clusters of respondents whose responses are similar. I’m a big fan of these kinds of voter typologies, but alas they are not available for every state.

Alternatively, we can look at how people classify themselves. In Gallup polling, 39% of North Carolinians say they are conservative, 33% label themselves moderate, 21% say liberal, and the rest don’t have a preference.

Because we all hear and interpret these terms a bit differently, these self-classifications aren’t always useful for explaining and predicting political behavior. Still, they allow for cross-state comparisons. North Carolina ranks 21st in the share saying they are conservatives and 28th in the share saying they are liberal.

Across most of these measures, our state occupies the middle position alongside a few other closely matched states such as Florida, Iowa, Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona. These are the places that tend to produce the most competitive races for U.S. Senate and governor. They are in play during presidential campaigns. They often feature spirited contests for down ballot races and split control of localities among Democrat leaning major cities and Republican leaning suburbs, small cities and rural communities.

As I observed at the beginning of this piece, however, don’t assume that these “middle” states have the least partisan electorates. That’s not necessarily true. The share of true swing voters, those without strong ideological leanings or party preferences, is sometimes rather small in these places — and has dropped dramatically from the glory days of the “ticket splitters” who decades ago would vote in large numbers for, say, a Republican for president and a Democrat for governor.

Here in North Carolina, we are certainly a middle state along the spectrum of American politics. But we rank 46th in the number of residents who describe themselves as moderate. And we aren’t appreciably different from the nation in the share of poll respondents who identify with neither major party.

After Republicans won control of the General Assembly in 2010 and a host of statewide offices in 2012, some GOP leaders and activists thought they had witnessed a lasting realignment. It proved ephemeral. After the Democrat Party won the governor’s race and key Supreme Court races in 2016 and 2018, some of its leaders and activists jumped to the conclusion than the GOP had flamed out and the state was reverting to its Democrat past.

There are no inexorable trends here. The two coalitions remained closely matched in North Carolina. Either can win big races in 2020. And both will play hard to win them.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

(1) comment


Carteret county is controlled by Republicans. To be elected, you are either connected or the spouse of a deceased office holder (qualifications aside).

Judicial elections are controlled by the local power attorneys. Fall in line with their agenda or you are out of luck. I believe a Mrs. Davis did a thorough expose on this in past CCNT opinions. Usually, I am for Republicans, but the Carteret variety is decidedly wanting in quality, not to mention honesty. Finally, without a clean sweeping out of office holders, we stand little chance of improving.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.