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Trump and GOP's hard work crushed Democratic dreams in North Carolina

Trump and GOP's hard work crushed Democratic dreams in North Carolina

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President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Winston-Salem in September. Trump was in North Carolina 11 times from July 27 though Nov. 2 and made 13 public appearances in those visits.

Democrats in North Carolina had confidence going into Election Day. The election forecasts and publicly available polling were positive, and pre-Election Day turnout, in the past a strong segment for their party, was huge.

But Republican political consultant Paul Shumaker saw signs in the polling numbers and early voting statistics that made him cautiously optimistic for his client, incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis. He had confidence even though Tillis appeared to be trailing Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham.

Shumaker realized that 18 months of the GOP's focused labor for President Donald Trump was paying off for Republicans throughout the ballot.

"Pure and simple, the Democrats got outworked," he said. "They didn't turn the vote out."

Hours after the voting ended on the evening Nov. 3, Democratic dreams of a return to power in North Carolina after 10 years mostly on the sidelines quickly faded.

The Democrats failed to deliver North Carolina for presidential candidate Joe Biden. They failed to beat Tillis. They failed to take any of three Republican-leaning Congressional seats that appeared winnable. They lost seats on the state Court of Appeals and state Supreme Court.

And in the N.C. General Assembly, where the Democrats hoped to take control in either the House or Senate, they had a net loss of four House seats, leaving a 69-51 GOP majority in that chamber. The loss was slightly offset by the gain of one seat in the Senate.

Mobilizing voters

What happened?

Trump happened.

"Donald Trump did a remarkable job at mobilizing rural white voters," said Peter Francia, director of the Center for Survey Research at East Carolina University.

Democratic political consultant Thomas Mills had similar thoughts.

"I was hopeful because ... everything has taught me that high turnout benefits Democrats. And this time it didn't. High turnout benefited Republicans," Mills said. "And I think that was a function of Trump. I'm not sure we're going to see that phenomenon again."

There were some bright spots for the Democrats.

As expected, the blue team gained two seats in Congress in recently revised Congressional districts. That's less than the four to five the Democrats hoped for, but still blunted the GOP's majority in the Congressional delegation. It now will be 8-5 instead of 10-3.

Gov. Roy Cooper solidly won reelection over Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. The incumbent secretary and state auditor fended off Republican challengers.

Incumbent Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein was running ahead by more than 14,000 votes on Monday, which is outside the recount margin.

But overall, talk of a second "blue wave" election in North Carolina this year after the Democrats' strong performance in the 2018 midterm elections was for naught.

Campaign appearances

The president's many appearances in North Carolina ahead of the 2020 election may be a piece of that.

Trump was in North Carolina 11 times from July 27 though Nov. 2 and made 13 public appearances in those visits. Most of his appearances were campaign events. His signature rallies drew thousands of ardent supporters to cities and small towns across the state.

Republican political activist and Lumbee Indian Jarrod Lowery said Trump's rally in rural Robeson County in late October helped boost turnout among Lowery's fellow Lumbees, who are the largest group of voters in that area. Many had never voted before, he said.

During the Robeson County visit, Trump reiterated his recently announced support for federal recognition of the tribe, which has been a top issue for the Lumbees since the 1800s because it would bring them significant federal services plus sovereignty.

"And I can tell you that I do know, in those two weeks of early voting in Robeson County, Republicans led in registration both weeks, which is something that's never happened," Lowery said. "And I think it was Lumbees coming out because they wanted to support the president and get behind the president."

Statewide, the Republican Party targeted people who normally skipped elections, said Shumaker, the GOP consultant who advised Tillis.

"We had disengaged voter universes — Republicans who had not voted in 2016 or 2018, but we had scored those folks supporting Thom Tillis, and supporting Donald Trump," Shumaker said. The GOP campaigns combed election records for these voters, vigorously reached out to them and persuaded 30% of them to participate in early voting, he said.

Democrats held limited in-person campaign events and refrained from door-to-door campaigning and other traditional activities due to concerns about spreading the coronavirus and COVID-19. They largely relied on videoconferences, phone calls, other electronic outreach and mailings.

The GOP, as the coronavirus restrictions eased and people began to feel more comfortable, resumed the personal engagement, Shumaker said.

"We had phones, mail, door knocks, follow-up, and we had it for an 18-monthy period of time," he said.

Despite the GOP efforts, polls showed Democrats ahead.

"The polls weren't wrong, by the way," Shumaker said.

They reliably predicted the preferences of the different demographic groups, he said, but they did not account for the actual turnout among those groups that he saw in the early voting data. A poll might list 6% of its respondents as Hispanic, he said, even though only 1.5% of the early voting turnout was Hispanic.

Shumaker scales the polling numbers up and down to match the actual turnout.

"It changes the whole the margin of the equation. The whole outcome. It's very simple math," he said. And the results showed Shumaker good news for the Republicans.

Red shift, blue shift: Trump gained Black and rural voters, and Biden gained city voters

Traditions broken

Trump and the Republican voters also bucked the typical trends seen in past North Carolina elections.

Voter registrations rose almost 6.4% from 2016 to 2020, and voter turnout vastly rose to 74.6% of registered voters, versus 69% four years ago. Early voting also leapt, from about 2.9 million voters to 3.6 million.

Until this year, according to Mills and others, these trends typically helped Democrats. Democrat Hillary Clinton led Trump by 84,000 votes in early voting in 2016.

This year, early voters picked Trump over Biden 1.85 million to 1.68 million votes, a margin of about 172,000. And as expected, Trump led Election Day votes. He topped Biden by about 2 to 1.

The only voting method that Trump lost in 2020 was in mail-in ballots — which in 2016 he had won.

Democrats this year strongly pushed their voters to vote by mail to avoid COVID-19. Many Republican voters expressed doubts about the risks of the disease and criticized GOP advertisements on social media that encouraged mail-in balloting.

Biden led mail-in balloting about 701,000 to 312,000.

But in the final totals from all voting methods, Trump drew about 2.74 million votes to Biden's 2.67 million.​

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