Let's ask the right questions

Published March 3, 2021

By Thomas Mills

There is a debate raging on Twitter and in the media about how Democrats win in swing states like North Carolina. One side believes they need to focus on “turnout and mobilization” while the other believes they need to appeal to a broader audience. As I’ve said before, they need to do both. Democrats have an opportunity to build a large centrist party but they also need to close the gap between GOP turnout and Democratic turnout. 

Right now, as Dr. Michael Bitzer notes, Republicans are leaving their party and registering as unaffiliated. They aren’t registering as Democrats because they still hold their conservative beliefs, just not the populist ones that now dominate the GOP. Democrats can attract those voters by looking for common ground and promoting positions that make these newly liberated Republicans comfortable. For instance, they should be pushing for criminal justice reform, instead of defunding the police. They should be supporting comprehensive immigration reform instead of open borders. 

However, Democrats cannot continue to ignore the turnout deficit they face in North Carolina. Republicans have been turning out at significantly higher levels than Democrats for years. Until Democrats fix that problem, they will have a difficult time winning, especially in tight districts. 

 The answer from progressives is that Democrats should be pushing an unabashedly progressive agenda that includes things like cancelling student debt and Medicare for All. However, what if they are wrong? What if some folks in the Democratic base aren’t turning out because, while they don’t like Republicans, they think Democrats have moved too far left? According to one analysis of the 2020 electorate, Democrats got a smaller share of votes from minorities like African American and Hispanic voters than they did in 2016. 

In North Carolina, African Americans are the key Democratic base constituency. Black residents in rural North Carolina are far more conservative than those in more urban areas, just like White residents. They are more likely to be religious, pro-law enforcement, and pro-life. 

 The other part of the Democratic base is younger, more urban voters. They tend to be more progressive, but they also tend to show up for elections at a much lower rate. Attracting them to the polls will be essential for Democrats in the future. 

According an exit poll analysis of North Carolina, African American support for Democrats was down about 3% from 2012 and 4% from 2008. Support from voters under 30 dropped 17% from 2008 and 10% from 2012. And voters under 45 made up a smaller share of the electorate than in any recent election. 

Democrats need to understand their base voters better and they need understand the complexity of this state. The people who have traditionally made up their base of support seem to be less supportive than in the past and they tend to be voting less frequently. I suspect the answer is finding a broader, more inclusive message combined with more aggressive outreach. 

Before we have definitive answers about what we need to do, we need to do far more research on what is happening to our electorate. Ask questions first and base strategies on the answers. Too many people on social media think they have the right answers. I’m not sure they’ve asked the right questions.