North Carolina provided one of the few bright spots for Republicans on Election Night 2012, a night that saw several swing states that the GOP hoped to win fall back into Barack Obama’s hands. After narrowly losing to Obama in the Tar Heel State in the 2008 election, North Carolina was the only state besides Indiana to move back to Mitt Romney and the GOP — but the move didn’t come cheaply. As I write in my upcoming book Going Red, that success came at the expense of a vast resource outlay:
But this lack of enthusiasm in North Carolina didn’t stop the two campaigns from pouring cash into the state. According to a Washington Post analysis, the only states with larger ad buys were Virginia and Ohio. Romney outspent Obama $57 million to $40 million—even though the media markets in North Carolina charge lower rates than the markets in the top three states. Nationally, both campaigns engaged heavily in negative advertising—85% of all advertising for Obama was negative, according to the Washington Post, and 91% of that for Romney.
Republicans had not lost North Carolina prior to 2008 for 32 years, not even when southerner Bill Clinton ran for president in two elections. There is no path to the White House without hanging onto North Carolina as well as winning back Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and a handful of other swing states. The Charlotte Observer reports that Republicans in North Carolina are now worried about the impact of a Donald Trump nomination not just on the presidential election but also on state and local elections — where the GOP has been effective despite its swing-state status:
The Republican establishment’s panic at the prospect of the GOP nominating Donald Trump for president has spread to North Carolina, which will hold its presidential primary March 15.
Echoing Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, and scores of other party elders around the country, some longtime North Carolina Republican leaders say they’re worried that Trump at the top of the ticket in November could hurt the chances of other GOP candidates – including those for governor and U.S. Senate – listed lower on the ballot. …
A poll late last month by Elon University found Trump leading his Republican rivals in next week’s North Carolina primary, at 28 percent – nearly 10 points ahead of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
But the poll also found, in a hypothetical matchup with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, that Trump would lose North Carolina – a key battleground state – 47 percent to 41 percent, if the general election were held now.
If that’s the story in November, Gov. Pat McCrory’s re-election bid could be imperiled, said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Washington-based Cook Political Report.
In addition to Governor McCrory and all major statewide offices, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr is up for reelection this year, as well has a U.S. House delegation that splits 10-3.
What kind of coattails would Donald Trump have?
That’s the big question, and the primary isn’t really telling us much about that. Republicans are enjoying record turnouts in the primaries, for which Trump and his supporters claim credit, but after eight years of Obama, a big turnout was already expected. Furthermore, the big turnout does not appear to be limited to states where Trump performs well. Minnesota, for instance, had a record caucus turnout and Trump came in a distant third here. The states which Ted Cruz has won also experienced massive turnouts; Kansas was a blowout win for Cruz over Trump.
The fact that Trump seems to be doing more poorly in closed (registered Republicans only) contests supports the idea that Trump is bringing in more unaffiliated voters. But were these voters formerly Democrats, or simply general-election Republican voters who don’t normally turn out for primaries? The question is important especially in North Carolina, where Republicans at the state and local levels have tried to expand their footprint in communities where the GOP traditionally does poorly in presidential elections — among millennials and African-Americans. Pat McCrory went from getting 3% of the black vote in his first failed gubernatorial bid to getting 13% the second time around — in the same election in which Obama narrowly lost to Romney, in fact.
Perhaps Trump gains enough other voters to make up for those losses, but that seems very iffy. Voter turnout was already relatively high in 2012 at 68.3%, although down slightly from 2008’s 69.6%, and all of that decline was among Democrats. Giving away those gains — and perhaps motivating greater turnout among Democrats with Trump at the top of the ticket — could spell trouble all the way down the line for North Carolina Republicans.
Update: “Tar Heel” is two words, as Brian Barbour reminded me on Twitter. I’ve fixed it above.
Going Red will come out on April 12th from Crown Forum in hardcover, audio, and e-book from Penguin Randomhouse and can be pre-ordered now.