Policy: Democrats' Charlotte Problem
A political campaign veteran explains why Charlotte is not Atlanta, and North Carolina is not Georgia.
Since this piece was originally published, I contributed some thoughts to WFAE’s post-election analysis, “Falling short: Why Democrats keep losing most statewide races.”
“I think my reaction was like a sad parent. I was not mad, just disappointed,” Spencer said about the struggle to turn out all of the Democratic coalition. “At some point, you have to ask yourself, what’s the definition of insanity? And is it doing the same thing over and over again?”
With Senate Democrats exceeding expectations across the country on November 8, why did North Carolina Democrats lose their fifth straight U.S. Senate race?
Especially after Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock’s incredible run in Georgia - winning four elections in 2 years - I’m often asked why North Carolina (and Mecklenburg County in particular) underperform expectations. Though it’s not the only problem for Team Blue, years of low voter turnout in Mecklenburg County hurts Democrats’ chances statewide even as the party dominates local elections.
In the November 8 General Election, 45.13% or 361,299 out of 800,627 registered voters in Mecklenburg County cast ballots. Statewide, 51.14% or 3,790,202 out of 7,412,050 registered voters in North Carolina cast ballots: a 6% higher participation rate. Wake County, North Carolina’s only other county with over 1 million residents, saw a 55.86% participation rate with 454,488 out of 813,690 registered voters casting ballots.
The disparity is nothing new. For the 2020 General Election, Mecklenburg County turnout was 71.90%, statewide turnout was 75.35%, and Wake County turnout was 79.85%. For the last midterm election in 2018, Mecklenburg County turnout was 50.90%, statewide turnout was 52.98%, and yet again Wake County turned out significantly more voters, with 59.26% turnout.
So why did almost 100,000 more people vote in Wake County? Why did less than half of Mecklenburg County voters vote?
I’ve heard many explanations over the years involving class and race: Wake County has higher turnout because their voters are more affluent, more educated. Wake County also has more white voters than Mecklenburg County. As the Brennan Center noted in their analysis of the 2020 election, 70.9 percent of white voters cast ballots compared with only 58.4 percent of nonwhite voters.
There’s also a massive disparity between the money campaigns and political parties spend on turnout, and the money they spend on TV, mail, radio, and - increasingly - digital. In Mecklenburg County, most local Democratic campaigns have only one (if any) paid field staff, who are in charge of volunteer recruitment and turnout.
Charlotte and Mecklenburg County are also missing much of the long-term voter mobilization infrastructure that’s been on display in Georgia over the past four years. Georgia’s overall turnout for the December 6 runoff was 50.49% - and major Democratic turnout counties like Fulton and DeKalb had higher turnout for the runoff than Mecklenburg County had for the general election.
The problem isn’t unique to Charlotte, however. As Dr. Michael Bitzer writes at his Old North State Politics blog, “For Black/African Americans, their turnout rate was nearly ten points below the state's turnout rate, while White turnout was 7 points ahead. Hispanic/Latino voters continue their extremely low turnout trend: in 2020, when North Carolina had a 75 percent turnout rate, only 59 percent of the Hispanic/Latino registered voters showed up that year.”
Outside of Charlotte and other big cities, Democrats have to pay more attention to rural communities - especially diverse rural counties. Take Anson County, an hour east of Charlotte, which is 48.0% non-Hispanic white and 44.6% non-Hispanic Black or African American. Every Democratic candidate for federal office won Anson County in 2020, and Governor Roy Cooper won it by 10 points. No Republican candidate for president has carried the county since Richard Nixon in 1972.
However, Republicans Ted Budd and Dan Bishop both won Anson County in 2022. That should concern Democrats, because it means their rural baseline continues to erode.
If Democrats and progressive-minded independents want to increase Charlotte (and North Carolina’s) voter turnout in 2024, they should start now. Convince donors to invest in long-term volunteer recruitment and voter mobilization staff. Fund Get Out the Vote (GOTV) organizations - and if there’s not a worthy organization to support, build one. Be inclusive and deliver messages to people where they are, in their faith homes, in their communities, and in their language.
Reconsider the massive amounts of money spent on mail and broadcast television at the expense of turnout and digital messaging. Treat voters and constituents like people, not just campaign ATMs.
Most of all, don’t be afraid to fail. Fail fast, learn lessons, and grow the movement. Otherwise, Democrats are going to continue to have a Republican state government that can make any decision by progressive local governments meaningless, or moot.
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