Elections then and now

Published August 27, 2020

By Tom Campbell

The 2020 election will be the strangest in our lifetimes. Coronavirus is a game-changer, but even before March North Carolina’s elections were shaping up to be different.
We are a much different state than when I first started covering politics in the 1960s, a time when three out of four voters were registered as Democrats, Republicans seldom had primary election challenges and much of the political power resided east of I-95. Candidates campaigned in person, often at country stores, civic clubs, fairs or sponsored candidate forums.
Newspaper and radio advertising were dominant, but candidate cards were on display at counters or handed out on streets. Additionally, signs stapled to phone polls, bumper stickers and lapel buttons were used for messaging. Television was effective but was too expensive for most. Ads touted biographical information, along with promises of what the candidate would do if elected; there were few mentions of the opponent. Political parties were very important, both to help raise money as well as to support party nominees in networks that reached down to the county level. Today, the parties escape personal limitations on contribution limits, so they can funnel large contributions to candidates for “in-kind” support. They have lost most of the power they once enjoyed.
Few recognize the role North Carolina’s Congressional Club had in changing politics, both in our state and nation. Perhaps more than anyone, the Club introduced sophisticated direct mail fundraising techniques that raised large sums of money needed for mass advertising. The organization also reshaped advertising messages, making negative campaign ads an art form.
Statewide candidates always paid extra attention to our larger cities, but they made some effort in all 100 counties. Today, a candidate can win by focusing primarily on the 15-20 most populous counties. Campaign “events” with donors are largely off the table and Zoom events don’t inspire supporters. Demographic and voter registration data make it easy to target direct mail or in-person canvassing down to a particular street or zip code. Social media messaging is a big factor, while TV for all but top-of-the-ballot campaigns is still off the table. Most can’t afford it, but the bigger problem is the lack of available airtime, especially in the 60 days prior to the vote.
This week The Washington Post, in one of a series of articles about the contested states, subdivided North Carolina into six political states, forming counties that can be delineated by party, race, education, whether rural or urban and who they voted for in the 2016 presidential race. Those factors are likely predictors to how they will vote this year. These “states within our state” include the 4 counties of the “Research Triangle,” 15 largely northern counties described as the “Black Belt,” the far western 24 counties called “Appalachia,” four counties dubbed “the Charlotte area,” 30 counties described as “Eastern N.C.,” and the 23 counties known as the “Piedmont.” It is an insightful article you might want to read at https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/politics/north-carolina-political-geography/?no_nav=true&p9w22b2p=b2p22p9w00098&tid=a_classic-iphone. 
Here's my spin on what to expect: First, this election is a referendum on Donald Trump. Candidates up and down the ballot will be helped or hurt by Trump. As many as 500,000 will request absentee ballots. Will they vote and, more importantly, will mailed votes be counted? Turnout is crucial. Black voters didn’t turn in 2016 as they had in 2008 and 2012. Neither did more highly educated whites. Dems don’t win if they don’t vote this year. Finally, I predict most of us will turn off and tune out by mid-October.