RALEIGH — 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 means that our Democratic and Republican coalitions are roughly the same size, making our elections highly competitive and difficult to predict.
According to Gallup polling, about 41% of North Carolinians identify as Democrats or say they lean Democratic. About 42% identity with or lean toward the GOP. The rest indicate no preference. Only six other states have partisan spreads of zero to one point in either direction.
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. Alternatively, we can look at how people classify themselves. In Gallup polling, 39% of North Carolinians say they are conservative, 33% label themselves moderate, 21% 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. They allow for cross-state comparisons. North Carolina is 21st in the share saying they are conservatives and 28th in the share saying they are liberal.
Across most of these measures, N.C. occupies the middle position alongside a few other closely matched states. These are the places that tend to produce the most competitive races for U.S. Senate and governor. They’re in play in presidential campaigns. They often feature spirited contests for down-ballot races and split control of localities among Democratic-leaning major cities and GOP-leaning suburbs, small cities and rural communities. 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.
North Carolina is a middle state along the spectrum of American politics, but we are 46th in residents who describe themselves as moderate. 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 that the GOP had flamed out and the state was reverting to its Democratic past. There are no inexorable trends. The two coalitions are closely matched in North Carolina. Either can win big races in 2020.