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North Carolina was supposed to be a purple state. But Democrats are suddenly ahead in all the big races. What’s going on?
If you want to understand the larger dynamics at play in the 2016 election — and how they are reshaping the clash between Republicans and Democrats in real time, from the top of the ticket to the bottom — there’s no better place to look than North Carolina.
And that’s a problem for the GOP.
Once upon a time, the Tar Heel State was reliably Republican, at least on the presidential level. Sure, Jimmy Carter — a southern governor with strong Evangelical ties — won there in 1976. But otherwise N.C. voted for every GOP nominee from Richard Nixon in 1968 to George W. Bush in 2004, and much of the time it wasn’t even close: George H.W. Bush trounced Michael Dukakis 16 percentage points in 1988, and his son defeated another Massachusetts Democrat, John Kerry, by more than a dozen points 16 years later.
That’s why it was such a big deal when Barack Obama inched past John McCain in North Carolina in 2008; his win seemed to signal some sort of shift. Still, Obama’s minuscule margin of victory — a mere 14,177 votes — suggested that, rather than voting Democratic from here on out, N.C. voters would be toggling back and forth between the parties. The fact that Mitt Romney recaptured the state in 2012 while losing nationally only confirmed the conventional wisdom: North Carolina might not be a solid red state any more, but it certainly hadn’t transformed into a solid blue state, either.
What to make, then, of the latest N.C. polling?
According to an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey conducted between Aug. 4 and 10 by Marist College — one of only two firms awarded a statewide accuracy grade of “A” by FiveThirtyEight — Hillary Clinton now leads Donald Trump by a staggering 9 percentage points in North Carolina. Down ballot, incumbent Republican Sen. Richard Burr is trailing Democratic challenger Deborah Ross by 2 points among registered voters, 46 percent to 44 percent. And in North Carolina’s gubernatorial race, incumbent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory is losing by 7 points to Democratic challenger Roy Cooper, who leads 51 percent to 44 percent.
Of course, one poll does not a blue state make. But the recent trend lines are not encouraging for the GOP.
FiveThirtyEight specializes in forecasting election results. To do so, the group’s model combines a “weighted, adjusted polling average for each state” with “demographic data,” then “simulates the election 10,000 times to get each candidate’s chance of winning.” From July 17 to Aug. 1, the FiveThirtyEight model gave Trump a better chance of winning North Carolina than Clinton; his odds peaked at 63.5 percent. But this month, as the polling has shifted in Clinton’s favor, the two candidates have traded places — and the gap between them has continued to widen. Currently, Clinton is a 3-to-1 favorite.
Meanwhile, North Carolina’s marquee down-ballot races appear to moving in the same direction. McCrory led in pretty much every early poll. But Cooper, his Democratic challenger, has come out ahead in six of the 10 surveys released since the start of spring. (Of the other four, two showed a tie, and the remaining two — the only polls since March to give McCrory the edge — were conducted by a conservative group.) Cooper’s position seems to be improving as well. In July, Marist showed him up by 4 percentage points; now, one month later, his lead has nearly doubled.
The picture isn’t quite as clear in the Senate race, but early evidence of a shift may be emerging. Burr finished first in every survey released before the presidential nominating conventions (and Trump’s subsequent slide in the national polls). But only two N.C. soundings have come out since then, and one of them — again, from Marist — shows Ross taking the lead. A month ago, the Democrat trailed in the same poll by a dispiriting 7 percentage points; now she’s up by 2. That 9-point swing could be a fluke. Or it could be a sign of things to come.
Either way, the proof is piling up: North Carolina appears, for now, to be breaking toward the Democratic ticket much faster, and more decisively, than anyone anticipated. In 2008, the Obama campaign was ecstatic to win the state by 0.32 percentage points. But now, if current trends continue, Clinton could clobber Trump by 5 points and propel a new Democratic senator and governor into office with her.
So what’s going on in the Tar Heel State? And what does it say about the 2016 election as a whole?
There seem to be two factors at work here. The first is a combination of broader demographic changes that would have affected the race regardless of who was running. As analyst Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report recently put it, North Carolina is “becoming less of a Southern state and more of a Mid-Atlantic state.” Arit John of Bloomberg Politics elaborates:
The shift has been fueled by an influx of new residents from out-of-state to city centers like Raleigh and Charlotte. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of North Carolinians who lived in a city with 75,000 people or more rose from 17 percent to 28 percent, according to Rebecca Tippett, the director of Carolina demography at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Carolina Population Center. During the same period the state’s population grew from 6.7 million to 9.6 million. As it continues to become less rural and more urban, Democrats stand to benefit.
Why? Because the kinds of voters who are driving this trend — college-educated whites drawn to North Carolina’s burgeoning Research Triangle region and Latino immigrants lured by the state’s fast-growing economy — tend to be Democrats already. In November, Cook expects college-educated whites to comprise 35 percent of the North Carolina electorate, up from 33 percent in 2012; at the same time, the share of the state’s white voters who didn’t attend college is projected shrink from 37 percent to 33.8 percent. Likewise, only 10,000 Latinos were registered to vote in North Carolina in 2004;today the number is 135,000. Over the long haul, these are the groups that are turning N.C. purple.
Then there’s the second factor to consider: Donald Trump.
Unlike North Carolina’s changing population patterns, Trump isn’t a long-term trend. He’s a much more immediate concern. Still, he should frighten North Carolina Republicans, because his nationwide decline has coincided with McCrory and Burr’s slipping numbers in the state — and that suggests some sort of connection.
We’ll need to see more polling before we draw any definite conclusions, but it isn’t hard to hypothesize about what that connection might be. The voters who have gradually been making North Carolina more urban and purple — again, college-educated whites and Latinos — just so happen to be the exact voters among whom Trump is performing his worst.
The data tells the tale. According to Fox News, Trump is currently pulling down a paltry 20 percent among Latinos — well shy of the 40 percent that George W. Bush won in 2004 or even Romney’s lackluster 27 percent. At the same time, Clinton is trouncing Trump by 8.7 percentage points among college-educated whites — a demographic that Romney actually won by 14 percentage points four years ago.
A Republican presidential nominee who appealed to Latinos and college-educated whites — someone like, say, Marco Rubio — might have slowed North Carolina’s leftward momentum. (And Virginia’s, and Colorado’s — the demographic trends are similar.) By the same token, a nominee like Trump, who repulses these groups in particular, could have the power to speed it up — and perhaps drag the rest of the ticket down with him.
(That’s part of the reason Clinton and her allies are bombarding the state with TV ads. So far, Trump has let their attacks go largely unanswered.)
If the GOP can convince voters in North Carolina and elsewhere not to punish down-ballot candidates for Trump’s transgressions, they may salvage control of the Senate and rescue some endangered governors. But right now, the Tar Heel State seems to be gravitating the other way. That’s not a good sign for the GOP.
A weekly look at the latest down-ticket data
There’s good news and bad news for Republicans in this week’s latest polls.
Let’s start with the good news.
Despite giving Hillary Clinton a 9-point advantage over Donald Trump in Florida — and despite the fact that 6 of the 8 Republicans running in top-tier Senate races have been polling worse since the conventions — a new Monmouth University survey suggests that Sen. Marco Rubio is bucking both trends and leading the two Democrats vying to challenge him this fall. (Florida’s U.S. Senate primary is Aug. 30.) According to Monmouth, Rubio currently holds a 48 percent to 43 percent lead over Rep. Patrick Murphy, his likeliest opponent; Rubio’s lead over Rep. Alan Grayson is larger, at 50 percent to 39 percent.
Why is Rubio — a late entrant who initially promised to retire from the Senate at the end of the year — performing so much better than GOP senators elsewhere? The Monmouth poll contains a few clues.
First of all, he’s very well-known — and relatively well-liked. More Florida voters approve (47 percent) than disapprove (39 percent) of the job Rubio has done in the Senate, and 40 percent see him favorably. Only 33 percent have an unfavorable view of the guy. Meanwhile, 68 percent of Floridians have no opinion of Murphy. When one of your choices is a former presidential candidate and the other is someone you’ve never heard of, the presidential candidate tends to do fairly well.
Secondly, Trump isn’t hurting Rubio the way he’s hurting other senators, such as New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte. Sixty-three percent of Florida voters aren’t even aware that Rubio eventually endorsed the Republican nominee. They’re probably more familiar with the remarks Rubio made about Trump during the presidential primaries (“this guy is a con artist”) than the remarks he’s made about Trump since then (“the time for fighting each other is over”). And Rubio should try to keep it that way: Of the Floridians who knew about his Trump endorsement, 25 percent told Monmouth that it would actually make them less likely to vote for Rubio. Only 9 percent said the opposite.
Now for the bad news.
Monmouth also released an Indiana poll this week, and in many ways, it’s the reverse image of Florida. Boosted by his selection of Hoosier State Gov. Mike Pence for VP, Trump is currently leading Clinton by 11 percentage points among likely voters.
But unfortunately for the GOP, that boost doesn’t seem to be extending down-ballot. In the state’s open-seat Senate race, former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh — who, like Rubio, only launched his comeback bid earlier this summer — leads his GOP opponent, Rep. Todd Young, 48 percent to 41 percent.
Like Rubio, Bayh — who served two terms in the Senate after serving two terms as governor — is well-known and well-liked in Indiana. Nearly half of Indiana voters (46 percent) have a favorable view of Bayh, while just 19 percent view him unfavorably. Hoosiers aren’t as familiar with Young; a majority (55 percent) have no opinion of him at all.
So far, Bayh’s popularity seems to be serving him well. While professional Republicans have been attacking his work as a lobbyist and questioning his claims that he stayed in Indiana after leaving the Senate in early 2011, actual Republican voters seem relatively unperturbed. In fact, according to Monmouth, 16 percent of Trump voters are planning to split the ticket and vote for Bayh as well.
The same cannot be said of Clinton voters: only 3 percent plan to vote for Young.