North Carolina Democrats and progressive organizers had hoped for a repeat of the 2008 election this year, when the Democrats won up and down the state. Instead, they saw multiple victories for Republicans.
"We didn't win the presidency," said Robert Dawkins, political director of Action NC, an advocacy group that focuses on poverty reduction initiatives and voter outreach. "We did not get progressive seats in the Senate House of Representatives. Most of the black candidates running for judges did not win. It was a total effort that failed."
Before Election Day, polls forecast positive results for Democrats in North Carolina – on November 3, President-elect Joe Biden led President Donald Trump by 1.8 percentage points in the FiveThirtyEight poll, while Democratic Senate candidate Cal Cunningham led the incumbent Senator Thom Tillis to Roy Cooper, the incumbent Democratic governor, has regularly received double-digit endorsement.
Of the three, only Cooper won and by 4.52 percentage points. Biden lost 1.34 percentage points, Cunningham 1.74 percentage points and the Republicans retained control of the state assembly.
The losses to the Democrats were not due to low turnout. In fact, voter turnout rose, and 75 percent of eligible voters – 5.54 million people – cast ballots. According to the North Carolina state electoral board, the Democrats have expanded their electoral base by nearly 500,000 compared to 2016, while the Republicans have gained about 400,000 more voters. An analysis by the Carolina Population Center found that approximately 1.8 million new voters (Democratic, Republican, and unaffiliated) were registered compared to 2016.
Access to polling stations has been expanded, early polling stations have been added in the cities, and attempts have been made to facilitate transportation for those who lack it on election day. A number of activists informed me that there were fewer cases of total electoral suppression than feared and that waiting times for voting were generally not long.
However, none of this was enough. Many I spoke to in the state said they believe the results showed that the problem wasn't about enthusiasm or voter turnout, but rather strategy, difficulty in overcoming the aftermath of past elections, and most importantly, timing.
Three things North Carolina Democrats could have done better
Unlike North Carolina, Biden won in Georgia, beating Trump by 0.25 percentage points. According to activists and organizers in North Carolina, the difference between the two states was at least partially self-inflicted.
Take the Democratic outreach strategy in each state: Dawkins said Georgia cleverly implemented a policy-driven approach that could have been used more effectively in North Carolina.
"In Georgia from the start of the new year in January, everything, any campaign, when they talked about why a neighborhood needs a speedbump," it won't change until you register to vote. And here is a card, register to vote, ”Dawkins said. "It was surgical."
A similar strategy led to the last major Democratic victory in North Carolina in 2008, according to Dawkins. That year the Democratic Party won the presidency, a race of the US Senate, the presidency of the governor and retained control of the state general assembly.
Dawkins said earlier that year, "I don't care if we're talking about a pothole or I don't care if we're talking about the light rail or whatever it was." And we need to choose to get this man ins To bring office. & # 39; ”
That year, Barack Obama was on the ballot and this method of winning votes was facilitated by the excitement generated by his candidacy. This time, voters weren't quite as enthusiastic about their decisions.
Before the election, Kevin Jones, first vice chairman of the Nash County Democratic Party, told me he was concerned about the excitement of the Democrats on the ballot, especially Biden.
"It's bad," said Jones. "If it takes Donald Trump 15 votes to win the presidency and there is only one vote in North Carolina, it won't be my vote that gets him in there." But I don't feel good about it. "
However, there is still a feeling that a different strategy could have filled this gap. Obama was again absent from the election in Georgia that year, and the state was still freaking blue for the first time in almost 30 years. Bennett Carpenter, the lead organizer of the Durham for All progressive group, said his organization was working to figure out how democratic politics would help voters – and saw success in doing so.
"People are so clear about the issues our communities are facing, especially at this moment, that they are loud and obvious," Carpenter said. Carpenter acknowledged that many in her community are frustrated with no progress on these issues, adding that Durham for All has had success "sharing messages:" We can make change, we can work together. " This is a bridge to bring people over the arch from disillusionment to hope and possibility. "
But Dawkins believes it should have been made wider. Marcus Bass, the executive director of Advance Carolina, a progressive advocacy group focused on empowering black communities, said he saw the problem from above. He believes the National Democratic Party's "Trump-or-else ticket offer, without really providing a deep answer to some of these long-standing problems, hampered turnout efforts in North Carolina."
And Todd Zimmer, co-director of rural progressive advocacy group Down Home North Carolina, noted that the Democrats' nationwide success in the re-election of Governor Roy Cooper can be seen as evidence of the effectiveness of a policy-driven approach.
"Cooper has shown that he will fight for the expansion of Medicaid, that he will stand up even if he cannot win this fight with a split general assembly," said Zimmer. "I think he was rewarded by the North Carolina voters for being seen as someone who understands the importance of this issue … (and) his response certainly helped too. Because the North Carolinians deal with the coronavirus approve and, by and large, speak out against the reopening movement. "
A number of organizers also said Democrats injured themselves. Organizers in many swing states complained after the elections that the Democratic Party relied too heavily on advisors and activists from outside their states – and I heard similar complaints about the strategy of the national party in North Carolina.
Bass argued that party leaders miscalculated in hopes that the top of the ticket would bolster the election candidates. And while national leaders were generally recognized for investing in the state, North Carolina organizers said that money was often not used wisely, and that staff and advisors arrived late in the year and lacked understanding of the communities. in which they were embedded, doing a lot of good.
The problem, they said, and as Florida State Senator Annette Taddeo told Politico, "You can't just show up a month before the election and expect people to be excited to vote for you."
According to many organizers, perhaps the most important topic was one of the times. They said the North Carolina flip can and will happen once they have a few years left. Durham for All has been partially constrained by being a relatively new organization, Carpenter said – it was only founded four years ago. Down Home North Carolina is about three years old. And many of the progressive organizations they work with are about the same old or newer.
"In the places where we really build this infrastructure, I think we're seeing real gains," said Carpenter. "One lesson for me is that this infrastructure requires time and resources and constant year-round work."
Carpenter said the hope is that with continued work and commitment, the results of the North Carolina election will be radically different four years from now. And in Georgia, the organizers told me that time – coupled with consistent work – was the secret to their success. Deborah Scott, the executive director of Georgia Stand-Up, told Anna North of Vox that it was a 15 year effort to turn Georgia blue.
Lewanna Heard-Tucker, chairwoman of the Fulton County Democrats in Georgia, told me, “In the end, it took Georgia a long time. It didn't just happen overnight. "
Democrats have also been hurt by some things that were beyond their control
While there are certainly opportunities that Democrats and organizers can pursue, their efforts have also been hampered by factors beyond their control.
Most prominent among these was the coronavirus pandemic, which forced organizers and party officials to cancel their registration and motivation plans and rush to develop new strategies.
“When we first started (outreach efforts), Covid hit what got some of our plans under control, especially because our original plan really focused on knocking doors to meet people where they are and build relationships Said Carpenter. "And so we had to switch to telephone and text banking and from personal to virtual events right from the start."
For Durham for All, these efforts have been more effective than hoped. And Bass noted that while the pandemic made organizing difficult, it allowed Advance Carolina to get involved in ways that otherwise it might not have been able to. "Getting us out of physical spaces," said Bass, "has in some cases helped build a broader base where groups that normally only meet in private spaces are now online."
For other organizations, however, the transition was more difficult. According to Zimmer, Down Home North Carolina switched to a "relational turnout model," which gave approximately 800 executives access to an app to help them connect with friends, family, and other people with whom they had personal relationships. The organization also developed an outreach strategy based on conversations about race and class that it personally wanted to use on the phones.
"I think that was to our disadvantage, to be honest," said Zimmer. “I think these tactics are powerful and strong, but that doors are a really important part of our electoral process. And so I wish we could do a do-over and be at doors. "
And Dawkins noted that many other organizations struggled when they "drastically deviated from a tried and tested method of door contact and phone banking and switched to more mobile mobilization, which I don't think has paid off."
Much of this mobile mobilization work consisted of "what we call souls for the polls," said Dawkins – which means organizations have worked with pastors and other community leaders to put together marches to polling stations. "That hurt a lot," said Dawkins, "because what you found was the people who showed up and took part in those election marches, and the souls to the elections were people who were already about to vote."
Ultimately, due to pandemic and financial challenges, Action NC was unable to achieve normal voter engagement. “We usually shoot to register between 15,000 and 20,000 people a year. This year we have 6,500 new registrations. So it was a huge success, ”said Dawkins.
Even so, statewide registration had increased, in part due to the nearly 400,000 new residents in the state since 2016. The turnout also increased dramatically. In the rural communities where Down Home North Carolina operates, Zimmer said, "In many cases (there was) an increase of over 100 percent from 16." Overall, Carpenter said, "We got 100,000 more people into the races than the right wing, which meant that in national races we could really close the gap – but still couldn't close it."
Closing this void has been complicated in part by the past. While the Democrats won in 2008, they lost hard in 2010 when the Republicans took control of the North Carolina General Assembly. These lawmakers oversaw the post-2010 census redistribution and redrew maps to aid the GOP – first on a racist and then partisan basis, after invalidating their initial efforts by the US Supreme Court to water down the voting rights of black North Carolina people had been declared.
In 2012, a Republican governor won and gave the GOP complete control of the state. New voting restrictions followed in 2013, including a law to identify voters. These were struck down in 2016 by the 4th US Court of Appeals for targeting "African Americans with near surgical precision". A modified version of the Voter ID Act was then introduced in 2018 through an election measure. It is currently being fought in court – so it was not in effect for the 2020 election.
Even so, this reality felt like Democrats and organizers were playing against a stacked deck for progressive purposes, their voting rights were watered down, and many citizens were unsure if they had the documents they needed to vote. Carpenter said it "certainly" hurt the Democrats in the last election.
North Carolina activists face tough fighting a decade ago
Many organizers, like Carpenter, see the 2020 election as a catalyst for major change in the state and the start of years of organizing labor and court battles to make North Carolina more competitive for Democrats.
The legal challenges to the state's voter ID law continue in state and federal courts – and proponents hope to advocate better access to voter registration. For example, an online voter registration for North Carolinians with a license was made available during this cycle, a policy change that Carpenter described as "an improvement that does not fully address the structural barriers that particularly prevent people of color, poor workers and people has eliminated young people from registration and voting. "Expanding this access would make it easier for new voters to register before the 2022 races.
Carpenter also spoke of working to expand the Democrats' electoral base. Biden was clearly able to build his support base in historically democratic counties, but struggled more to roll back the Obama constituencies that Trump won in 2016. In many of them, Trump built on his 2016 vote count; For example, in Robeson County, where Trump fluctuated 21 percentage points in 2016, he beat Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton by 4 percentage points. In 2020 he defeated Biden there by 18.6 percentage points.
"If I can take anything with me from this election, we must continue to work to convince people who may be voting for Trump that our policies do indeed offer them a better path to a more hopeful, prosperous and happier future," Carpenter said . "I think we must have the audacity to believe that our vision can be more powerful and convincing than the siren call of white supremacy."
Perhaps the most immediate problem for organizers and Democrats will be that the GOP will retain control of the General Assembly.
If the new counties are drawn after the 2020 census results are released, Republican lawmakers will likely seek to neutralize Democratic power in places where Biden has significantly increased his voting share over Clinton such as Wake County and the role of new residents in the democratic state minimize on elections. Dawkins said he and other activists expect "to go back to court and argue about it".
That means organizers and local Democratic officials have to play where they can win in the short term, Carpenter said, adding that the key question is, "How can we actually mobilize for real change in the places where we have ultimate government power ? while we continue to build this basic infrastructure at the local level? "
Long-term, Zimmer said, “In some of the areas I'm in there are a lot of conversations about 10 year strategies going on because there is a feeling that North Carolina is going to change but we need to organize and build strategically to get there reach. "
For many I have spoken to, this strategic build includes outreach, education, pooling resources with like-minded organizations, and carefully recruiting candidates who reflect the communities in which they operate and who have a nuanced understanding of the policy.
The ultimate goal, Carpenter said, is to be in a position “in four years, eight years in which we keep building the movement, building the leaders, building the infrastructure that can not just win an election, but actually continues to gain real change for North Carolina. "
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