If Democratic turnout kept pace with with Republicans, the state would have a bluer hue

Published February 3, 2021

By Thomas Mills

Speculation about the U.S. Senate race in North Carolina is already ramping up. National outlets are writing about the state because of its importance in determining control of the Senate. Senator Richard Burr has announce he will retire, leaving an open seat in a state that is already highly competitive. Both parties already have announced candidates and more are looking at the race. 

After a record high turnout in 2020, the 2022 turnout rate will certainly drop. Historically, midterm elections in North Carolina have a turnout rate in the mid-40s. However, in 2018, 53% of registered voters showed up. While that number fell 22% behind the presidential year of 2020, it was 9% higher than 2014, the previous midterm election. In addition, 2018 was a so-called blue-moon with no high-profile race at the top of the ticket. 

In 2018, Democrats had a good year. They won seats on the state’s highest courts and picked up seats in both chambers of the legislature. They benefited from a turnout rate among voters under 40 that jumped more than ten percent. The election seemed to justify the conventional wisdom that higher turnout is good for Democrats. The 2020 election cast doubt on that supposition.

 In 2018, turnout was driven by Trump, even though he wasn’t actually on the ballot. Republicans turned out to defend him. Democrats turnout to oppose him. In 2022, he won’t likely be much of a factor. The election will hinge more on Joe Biden’s performance as president. The Senate race will again be the center of national attention and driving the turnout in the election. 

In both 2018 and 2014, Democratic turnout trailed Republican turnout by about three percent and both parties increased their turnout by about eight percent from 2014 to 2018. That said, Democrats made up a smaller share of the 2018 vote than they did in 2014. They dropped about four percent of the overall electorate while Republicans’ share only dropped by two percent. Unaffiliated voters made up the difference, increasing their turnout by eleven percent and making up 28% of the electorate in 2018 as opposed to 22% in 2014. The 2018 election showed unaffiliated voters shifting towards Democrats, a trend that continued in 2020.

 In 2018, turnout among white voters increased about nine percent over 2014 while turnout among African American voters increased about six percent.  In 2018, African Americans made up about 20% of the electorate. In contrast, they made up about 21% in 2014. Democrats need to reverse this trend if they want to do well in 2022.

In a state as evenly divided as North Carolina, Democrats need to focus on registering and motivating voters. They consistently trail Republicans in turnout. In 2018, Democrats benefited from a more motivated younger electorate, but would have done even better if African American turnout had kept up with the increase of White voters. If Democrats kept pace with Republican turnout, the state might still be purple but it would have a bluer hue.