Wow, was I wrong

Published November 5, 2020

By Thomas Mills

Last night, I learned how little I understand North Carolina politics. For years, I thought I had a pretty good handle on my native state. Since 2016, though, most of my assumptions have been proven wrong. I never thought Democrats would have such bad night in this state.

Several of my assumptions about politics, and North Carolina politics in particular, no longer hold. It will take a while for me to better understand what happened, but I will certainly need to find new assumptions and data points. And I’ll have to stop believing the polls.

After 2016, the political polling industry had to take a hard look at itself and determine how it missed so much. Pollsters retooled, especially controlling for education. Clearly, it wasn’t enough. Pollsters will defend themselves by telling us that, really, they were within the margin of error. But margin of error should be much smaller with an average of polls—that’s one reason to average them—and they shouldn’t always be off favoring Democrats. I will be much more skeptical that polling errors have been fixed in the future and will certainly not rely on them as predictors like I have historically. 

For my entire career in politics, I have believed that high turnout benefited Democrats. That’s no longer true. Turnout in North Carolina was almost 75%, the highest in my lifetime, and Republicans benefitted more than Democrats. 

There were some warning signs in the early vote. African American turnout lagged white voters, but I believed that younger unaffiliated voters who would support Democrats would make up the surge voters. Younger voters may have been a large part of those new voters but they didn’t support Democrats. High turnout is a reflection of the party that is most motivated and clearly that was Republicans. 

Enthusiasm clearly is a driver of voters more than television ads. Former Reagan speechwriter and conservative columnist Peggy Noonan noted last week that Trump’s large rallies indicated that people were coming out for him. The lines in Hickory to get into the Trump event on the eve of the election made me think about her statement. 

Money matters less than pundits and consultants believe. Democrats had a staggering financial  advantage and it clearly didn’t pay off in North Carolina. Republicans added seats in the state house and won most of the Council of State seats as well as the U.S. Senate race and the presidential contest despite healthy Democratic war chests.

I think John Hood is correct that Democrats do not understand how the protests look to many swing voters. I suspect protesters could have gotten away with pulling down some Confederate monuments if Democrats had come down hard on private property destruction. Despite what progressives believe, their protests do as much to fire up the opposition as they do to rally support. People who might sympathize with the concept of Black Lives Matter resent being put into the position of choosing between the racist counter protestors or the people who make excuses for vandalism and destruction in commercial districts. 

Some things also have not changed. The exurbs are still Republican territory in North Carolina. Counties like Johnston, Franklin, Cabarrus, and Union still deliver for the GOP. That may change over time, but it’s not changing this year. 

And the top of the ticket still matters the most. Republicans came out to vote for Donald Trump. That’s what drove turnout so high. They didn’t come for Thom Tillis or Dan Forest or anybody else. They came for Trump and every Republican below him on ticket benefitted. 

Those are my initial thoughts on the election. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on the matter in the future. My biggest takeaway is that I don’t know as much as I thought I did.