The electorate and the country are in transition. Politically, we’re in the midst of the most significant realignment in 40 years. Economically, we’re shifting from a manufacturing-based economy to a technology/knowledge-based economy. We are quickly becoming more urban and less rural. Old institutions are losing influence and new ones are emerging. The shifts have caused divisions unseen since the Great Depression and they have a significant impact on North Carolina politics.
Former Bill Clinton advisor Doug Sosnick notes what he calls the “diploma divide.” Educational attainment, he says, “is increasingly the best predictor of how Americans will vote, and for whom.” People with college degrees are far more likely to vote for Democrats than those without. That’s especially true for White Americans since people of color still favor Democrats, though by diminishing margins.
Sosnick says that the division has left us with only eight battleground states, of which North Carolina is one. In order for a Democrat to win in 2024, the party needs to continue to increase its share of college-educated voters to offset its shrinking share of non-White voters. They also need to win fickle independent voters who supported Trump narrowly in 2016, then supported Biden by nine. In the last two midterms, they broke for Democrats by 15 in 2018 but only two points in 2022. Finally, they need to win suburban voters who “moved to the suburbs for a higher quality of life: affordable housing, safe streets and good schools.”
Along those lines, David Brooks believes he has the formula for winning consistently, but doesn’t see a party embracing it. He asks, “Where is the political party that is conservative-leaning on business matters and more liberal-leaning on things like education, immigration and work force development?” The party he describes sounds remarkably like the North Carolina Democrats before the Republican takeover in 2010.
Back then, Democrats under the leadership of Jim Hunt, Mike Easley, and Bev Perdue kept a focus on attracting businesses while building a strong educational system that extended from pre-K through college. The party walked a narrow line on social issues, taking a more moderate approach than many of their neighbors though not as progressive as states in the Northeast or West Coast. They kept the state at the top of the nation in economic growth and a welcoming business climate while also making improvements to our K-12 system and maintaining the among the best community college and public university systems in the nation.
In contrast, the GOP has exploited social issues, fomenting division and driving a wedge between urban and rural White voters. They’ve won by increasing their margins in rural counties while losing by increasing ones in urban areas. While we still have one of the top business environments in the country, our public schools are suffering with low teacher pay and high attrition. Our universities have suffered a decade of bad headlines that have hurt recruiting of top researchers and academics.
Today, Carolina Forward released a report showing how the state is slowly but surely trending Blue. They note that the Democratic margin in the fastest growing and largest counties in the state is increasing rapidly. In contrast, Republicans may be improving their margins in rural areas, but those places are aging and losing population.
The report also notes that net in-migration accounts for vast majority of the state’s growth. Republicans like to believe we are attracting people from high tax states like California, but, in reality, four of the five top states they are leaving are in the South. Those newcomers may be coming for the jobs and quality of life, but they aren’t moving here to escape oppressive taxes or over-unionized workforces. And they aren’t voting for Republicans, either.
All of these arguments bode well for North Carolina Democrats. The state is becoming more educated, not less. The in-migration will continue for the foreseeable future, attracting an even more educated electorate moving here for our high-tech and knowledge-based jobs. The older and Whiter rural electorate will continue to wither under GOP policies that, ironically, discourage growth in those areas.
However, for Democrats to improve their fortunes, they need to be aware of the suburban and independent voters who are more concerned with quality of life issues than social issues. The party has a formula that worked for about two decades and has worked for Roy Cooper. Instead of focusing on the problems that divide us like the GOP does, they should focus on what has broad appeal — improving education, creating jobs, and maintaining safe communities. If they do, the future is bright, despite the 2022 election cycle.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Mills spent 20 years as a political and public affairs consultant. Republished from PoliticsNC.com.