Decision 2019/2020: Dissecting the North Carolina special election results

The last unsettled Congressional election from 2018 has finally concluded, with Republicans holding onto a US House seat in the Charlotte, NC area that they have held since 1963. Republican Dan Bishop was elected by a 51-49% margin in a race that had to be rerun because of material instances of absentee ballot fraud in last year’s midterm election. From an examination of the results, what lessons are there to be learned from this race, and what are the implications for the 2020 Presidential election?

The 9th Congressional District of North Carolina (map can be found here) is a mixture of affluent suburbs and rural areas with a high black (and in Robeson County, a Lumbee Indian) population. While it leans Republican (Donald Trump carried it 54-42% in the 2016 elections), it has seen some movement away from Republicans in more affluent neighborhoods close to downtown Charlotte. And it is the fluidity of this (affluent) demographic that should concern Republicans. For starting with the 1992 Presidential election, affluent professionals in places like Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia shifted towards the Democrats, and this shift arguably built the “blue wall” of northern/Midwestern/Pacific Rim states that made it significantly more difficult for a Republican Presidential candidate to attain the 270 electoral votes needed to win. And, of course, also put states like Illinois, California, and New Jersey out of reach for Republicans in almost every contest since 1992.

This demographic shift seemed to have a limited scope until the 2016 Presidential election, when suburban areas around cities like Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston (and even locally in East Baton Rouge and Jefferson Parishes) began to show a newfound affinity for Democratic Presidential. This shift at the time went largely unnoticed, because (1) it didn’t cost the Republicans any states (although it made the Georgia and Texas results closer than they should have been), and (2) these areas still re-elected their Republican Congressional representatives, albeit by narrower margins.

However, these areas were at the front line of the Democratic surge in the US House last year, thus creating some concern among Republicans about GOP suburban problems. A similar shift occurred in this race. Democrat Dan McCready (who also ran in the 2018 race that had to be rerun) carried the Charlotte precincts 56-43% (he won these precincts 54-44% last year). The 60-39% Republican vote in suburban Union County (59-39% last year) offset the Charlotte numbers, although this time Democratic rural strength sagged despite a high black and Indian population in those counties – the Democratic candidate carried these counties 53-45% last year but only by 250 votes in the special election contest.

Still, the fact that Donald Trump was able to fire up the Republican base in the district with a rally the night before the election (Republicans in North Carolina tend to vote more on Election Day than they early vote) can’t be discounted. And that is precisely the Republicans’ challenge next year: while his presence benefits Republican candidates who are the beneficiaries of straight ticket voting in Republican areas, rallying the Republican base is much less effective (in Presidential OR Congressional races) in states like Arizona, Colorado, and Virginia, which have a more substantial population of politically unaffiliated voters who are much less favorably inclined towards the Trump brand of Republicanism. And the plain political reality is that President Trump must expand on the 46% of the national popular vote he received in 2016 unless he wants to gamble on (1) Democrats’ nominating someone too far to the left of the political spectrum, (2) an unacceptable Democratic nominee generating a credible third party challenger who can siphon at least 10% of the vote away and enable President Trump to be re-elected with 45-46%. In other words, it’s not wise to dismiss the surge in Democratic turnout in 2017-8 as a fluke, because it’s not yet apparent that the flirtation of Independent voters with Democrats last year has abated.