How Republican is North Carolina? My answer is 63.
I realize this number has no meaning to you right now. I’ll explain it. For starters, I’m not saying that 63 percent of North Carolina voters are Republicans. Not even half are Republicans. In fact, out of 6.5 million people registered to vote in our state, some 30.5 percent are Republicans. Democrats make up 40.8 percent, Libertarians account for about half a percent, and unaffiliated voters make up the remaining 28 percent.
How people identify themselves often differs from their party registration, but that doesn’t explain my answer, either. Some right-of-center Democrats and unaffiliated voters are reliably Republican voters. Still, that would put the number of operational Republicans into the mid 40s, at most. (Operational Democrats are a comparable number, at least in North Carolina, with true swing voters representing only about a tenth of the electorate).
When I rate Republican strength in North Carolina at a 63, I’m referring to a weighted percentage of electoral power held in the state. A couple of years ago I constructed a North Carolina Election Index to track the relative strength of the two main political powers over the past several decades. The index contains eight variables measured on the same scale, with a 0 percent meaning the category in question is completely dominated by Democrats and 100 percent meaning the GOP is completely dominant.
The eight variables are: 1) the share of the GOP vote in the last gubernatorial election, 2) its share of Council of State seats, 3) its share of U.S. House seats, 4) its share of U.S. Senate seats, 5) its share of N.C. Senate seats, 6) its share of N.C. House Seats, 7) its share of N.C. Supreme Court seats, and 8) its share of county commission majorities.
Any attempt to attach a single number to a multivariate phenomenon such as partisan strength requires judgment calls. As you can see, I place the highest emphasis on state-level offices — they account for five of the eight variables — and give twice as much weight to legislature power as I do to control of the governor’s mansion. I also think control of the high court and of county governments to be very important.
Others may disagree with my preferences. I consider them defensible, particularly in light of recent events. After Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2010, for example, they spent two years sparring with Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue. She usually lost. In terms of formal institutional power, our governors are still weaker than those of most other states.
My North Carolina Election Index begins in 1950. The overall Republican score that year was just a 6, about where it had stayed for most of the previous century. The GOP score rose to a 10 in 1960 and then stayed in the teens for nearly all of the next two decades, except for a fleeting uptick to 26 in 1972. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 and reelection in 1984 helped state Republicans rise into the 20s, then the 30s. After the Republican Revolution of 1994, the GOP score made it into the 40s. It rose again in 2002, into the 50s. GOP fortunes waned when Barack Obama was elected president, but then recovered and soared to new heights in 2012 and 2014.
Republicans are proud of their recent political accomplishments. Democrats are frustrated by them. Both should keep them in perspective. In no way are North Carolina Republicans as powerful today as North Carolina Democrats were during their heyday. In 2016, the likely gubernatorial matchup between Pat McCrory and Roy Cooper will be highly competitive. So will a number of legislative seats, judicial and county races, and several seats on the Council of State, including wide-open races for attorney general and state treasurer.
As the political index clearly shows, presidential candidates and administrations have a large effect on state party success. To forecast what will happen next for North Carolina’s Democrats and Republicans, start by watching the presidential primaries.
John Locke Foundation chairman John Hood is the author of Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.