In the context of American politics, North Carolina is a middle state — which is not the same thing as saying North Carolinians are especially moderate. It simply means that our Democratic and Republican coalitions are roughly the same size, making our elections highly competitive and difficult to predict.
Consider stated party preference (a better predictor than party registration). According to Gallup polling, about 41 percent of North Carolinians identify as Democrats or say they lean Democratic. About 42 percent identity with or lean towards the GOP. The remaining indicate no preference.
Only six other states have partisan spreads of zero to one point in either direction. Massachusetts is the most Democratic state, with a net blue advantage of 29 points. Wyoming is the most Republican one, at +34 points.
Governing magazine approached the question from a different direction. Its analysts first estimated the partisan leanings of demographic groups in the electorate based on race or ethnicity, education, and location. Then it ranked the states according to their proportions of such electoral groups.
The states most primed to support Democrats by this estimate included New Jersey, California, and Hawaii. The most Republican were West Virginia, Kentucky, and Maine. North Carolina was smack dab in the middle at number 25.
As for ideology, there are many different ways to classify people based not on their votes but on their viewpoints. Some analysts ask a battery of questions on a wide range of issues and then look for clusters of respondents whose responses are similar. I’m a big fan of these kinds of voter typologies, but alas they are not available for every state.
Alternatively, we can look at how people classify themselves. In Gallup polling, 39 percent of North Carolinians say they are conservative, 33 percent label themselves moderate, 21 percent say liberal, and the rest don’t have a preference.
Because we all hear and interpret these terms a bit differently, these self-classifications aren’t always useful for explaining and predicting political behavior. Still, they allow for cross-state comparisons. North Carolina ranks 21st in the share saying they are conservatives and 28th in the share saying they are liberal.
Across most of these measures, our state occupies the middle position alongside a few other closely matched states such as Florida, Iowa, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona. These are the places that tend to produce the most competitive races for U.S. Senate and governor. They are in play during presidential campaigns. They often feature spirited contests for down-ballot races and split control of localities among Democratic-leaning major cities and Republican-leaning suburbs, small cities, and rural communities.
As I observed at the beginning of this piece, however, don’t assume that these “middle” states have the least-partisan electorates. That’s not necessarily true. The share of true swing voters, those without strong ideological leanings or party preferences, is sometimes rather small in these places — and has dropped dramatically from the glory days of the “ticket splitters” who decades ago would vote in large numbers for, say, a Republican for president and a Democrat for governor.
Here in North Carolina, we are certainly a middle state along the spectrum of American politics. But we rank 46th in the number of residents who describe themselves as moderate. And we aren’t appreciably different from the nation in the share of poll respondents who identify with neither major party.
After Republicans won control of the General Assembly in 2010 and a host of statewide offices in 2012, some GOP leaders and activists thought they had witnessed a lasting realignment. It proved ephemeral. After the Democratic Party won the governor’s race and key supreme court races in 2016 and 2018, some of its leaders and activists jumped to the conclusion than the GOP had flamed out and the state was reverting to its Democratic past.
There are no inexorable trends here. The two coalitions remained closely matched in North Carolina. Either can win big races in 2020. And both will play hard to win them.