Four years ago, North Carolina voters did something that didn’t happen anywhere else - Republican Donald Trump won the state’s Electoral College votes, but a Democrat unseated an incumbent GOP governor.
Four North Carolina counties — Jackson, New Hanover, Granville, and Nash — went for both Democratic Governor Roy Cooper and Republican President Donald Trump. They both scored narrow victories.
“We are a fairly moderate state, we’re a state that is difficult to pin down,” Western Carolina University political scientist Dr. Chris Cooper said.
The Old North State is one of the few in the South that didn’t go through the “realignment” that others did, he says, thus explaining why split-ticket voting can be so noticeable.
“We were never as democratic as many of our southern neighbors, and we never became as republican as our southern neighbors,” Cooper said. “We’ve been sort of locked in this middle point of realignment for multiple decades.”
Cooper says while this group makes up a small share of North Carolina’s electorate, it’s enough to sway an election, 2016 being the most recent example.
“In an election this close, every demographic matters, every group of voters matters,” Cooper said. “And yeah, if you’re talking about somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 percent of voters who could legitimately vote for different parties, they are absolutely going to be critical for determining who wins our electoral votes and who ends up occupying the white house for the next four years.”
But it’s a shrinking slice of the pie in 2020. Factors like, demographic changes and a more racially diverse electorate are a few of the variables in play this year. But the Covid-19 pandemic looms most large over the swingy 10 percent -- particularly those in the Boomer generation.
To include Deborah Lewis-Smith. In previous election years, she split her ballot. She’s voted for both Republican and Democratic presidents.
“In the past, my voting record has been all over the place,” Lewis-Smith said.
But this year is different. For the first time, the Chestnut Hill resident says she’s voting all Democrat down the ballot.
“If a candidate denies the pandemic, they are not my person. Right then and there," Lewis-Smith said. "
Because I have watched family members who have lost loved ones without seeing that person, and there is no reason for that.”
Lewis-Smith works in a continuing care facility and says the pandemic is the number one reason she’s changing her voting behavior this year.
“That is a very unique response for someone who has historically been a split ticket voter,” Dr. Nicholas Davis, a political scientist at the University of Alabama, said. He’s written about the psyche of split ticket voters and says anger can be a powerful enough emotion to change someone’s behavior at the ballot box.
“The vote becomes somewhat of a referendum on an entire party, rather than an idiosyncratic, ‘I’m going to take each race as it comes,’” Davis said.
And that, he adds, can be psychologically challenging, given how partisan identity is increasingly enmeshed in social and religious affiliations. Davis says that’s why those who previously voted for Trump might not be willing to speak openly about changing their vote this year.
“Given all of the sort of prevailing current events, I don’t think it’s all that surprising you would see people who are reluctant to vote for the other team,” Davis said. “Politics is much like sports, in the sense that it doesn’t make others feel good to acknowledge that ‘I might have to not root for these guys right now.’”
It’s too soon to say how this will shake out in North Carolina. Dr. Chris Cooper of Western Carolina University says polls show if there are split tickets in the state again this year, it will mostly be those voting for President Trump and Governor Cooper, just like four years ago.