Rusher provides perspective on November's mid-term election

Posted 11/29/18

This week, we speak with Mike Rusher, who’s been analyzing elections data since 2010, about a statewide perspective on November’s mid-terms. Rusher is the vice president for public …

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Rusher provides perspective on November's mid-term election

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This week, we speak with Mike Rusher, who’s been analyzing elections data since 2010, about a statewide perspective on November’s mid-terms. Rusher is the vice president for public affairs at The Results Company, a communications and strategic consulting firm in Raleigh. During his career he’s worked with nonprofit organizations and political campaigns and state government and governmental affairs. Rusher began packaging election data tracking and analysis to his clients in 2010. He earned a degree in political science and concentration in state government from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro

This year’s mid-term elections featured high voter turnout and quite a few extremely close races around North Carolina. What were your overall impressions about this election?

North Carolina missed the message about 2018 being a low turnout mid-term with 52 percent turnout, blasting past 2014’s turnout of 44 percent and 2010’s turnout of 43.6 percent. We had a record number of candidates running for state house and senate seats as nearly each of the 170 contests featured both a Republican and a Democratic candidate.
However, on election night the urban-rural divide was easy to see. Wake and Mecklenberg counties paved the way for smaller Republican majorities in the North Carolina General Assembly. Only a duo of Republican lawmakers were chosen on election day in the state’s most populous counties, Wake (Raleigh) and Mecklenburg (Charlotte). No State House Republicans made it through election day there, and Senator John Alexander was the last Senate Republican standing. In Mecklenburg, Senator Dan Bishop was the last Republican standing in the Senate.
Overall, Democrats picked up 10 seats in the State House and six seats in the State Senate. In the Senate chamber, Democrats will hold 21 Senate seats to Republicans’ 29 when the new legislative session begins next year. In the House chamber, Democrats will have 55 seats in the House to Republicans’ 65. 
Though North Carolina also played host to three battleground U.S. Congressional races this year, in the end they yielded no surprises. By tracking early voting results and comparing to past elections, there were clear trends developing in late October, well before election day. Most importantly, the “blue wave” didn’t happen as advertised. Halfway through the expanded early voting calendar, the results showed not only were Republicans ahead of expectations in the 9th and 2nd district battlegrounds, but that they were far ahead in the 13th. These trends were solidified by the 18th day of early voting in 2018, a year in which 55 percent of the total 3.71 million ballots were cast before election day.
In lieu of the congressional results, gerrymandering will inevitably become a focal point in our state’s politics. Yes, Republicans won 77 percent of the state’s congressional seats Tuesday night on the strength of 51 percent of the votes cast – but is this anything but an accurate measure of what our state’s congressional delegation should look like politically. In the months leading up to the election, polling indicated these districts were up for grabs, and leads changed hands multiple times in the battleground districts of the 2nd, 9th and 13th. Further, each district, campaign, and candidate message were unique enough to pierce this blanket measurement of applying a popular vote percentage across individual districts. Lastly, North Carolina’s current governor and latest elected State Supreme Court Justice both won their elections without clearing the 50 percent threshold, yet they now represent 100 percent of the state. I believe we should frame this debate better than special interest groups who cherry pick statistics to fit their rhetoric. 

What role did young voters play?

Year after year a large portion of election coverage tends to drift towards the elusive block of young voters. Though we don’t yet have 2018’s election day statistics, we know through early voting that 18- to 30-year-olds continue to be the smallest block of voters compared to 31-44, 45-65, and 65 and above groups. In fact, in 2018 just 9.5 percent of all votes cast in the early vote period were from the 18- to 30-year-old voting bloc. This is well below that group’s 2016 levels and slightly above 2014 levels.

Voter ID passed, but…what’s next?

Lawmakers return to Raleigh to work out the details of the recently passed proposal to add Voter ID into the North Carolina Constitution. Unfortunately, no matter the outcome of the legislative session, the outcome is expected to be met with immediate lawsuits from anti-voter ID groups. As far as expected impacts on North Carolina elections research from other states indicates that when properly implemented, a voter ID requirement has no negative impacts on turnout. In fact a 2009 study from The Heritage Foundation found that turnout was higher in Indiana and Georgia after they took the simple step to implement Voter ID and prevent voter fraud. 
In fact, from 2004 to 2008, the overall turnout in Georgia increased 6.7 percent. This turned out to be the second highest percentage increase in voter turnout of any state in the country in 2008. After the photo ID law went into effect, black turnout increased from 25 percent to 30 percent. 
Additionally, while Indiana is known for having one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country, from 2004 to 2008 the turnout of Democrat voters increased by 8.3 percent. That was the largest increase in Democrat turnout of any state in the country. By comparison, neighboring Illinois has no photo ID requirement and had an increase in Democratic turnout of only 4.4 percentage points – nearly half Indiana’s increase. 

Let’s look ahead to 2019 and the N.C. General Assembly…how will the smaller Republican majority impact the governor’s veto power?

While Republican majority slimmed in the State House by 10 seats and the State Senate by six seats, they hold majorities – but is the Democrat Governor’s veto really stronger? That’s difficult to answer when we examine this history of Governor Roy Cooper’s vetoes. Republicans have been willing to reach across the aisle for veto-overrides and some Democrats have been willing participants. In all, Governor Cooper has used his veto stamp 25 times. Out of those 25, 20 have been overridden. And out of those 20, only four were overridden on party lines. That means 16 veto-overrides garnered bi-partisan support of at least one or more Democrats. 

With the 2018 elections behind us, the 2020 elections start now. What can we learn from 2018 to preview 2020? 

Like it or not, the 2020 campaign season has already begun, and the early advantage goes to North Carolina Republicans, who will help launch President Trump’s 2020 bid by hosting the Republican National Committee’s Convention in Charlotte. North Carolina’s voting electorate is historically complex, and to better understand implications for 2020, we must start with the data from 2018. 
On the surface, Democratic gains are easy to spot. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find the foundation of undeniable Republican leanings. Though North Carolina featured no traditional statewide “top of ticket” federal race in 2018, statewide data has produced very relevant results that political parties ignore at their own risk. 
The two most highly voted contests, in order, were to add Voter ID into the state’s constitution (3.65 million votes cast), and the race for North Carolina Supreme Court (3.61 million votes cast). Voter ID, a staple of the Republican Party platform, passed with 55.55 percent support. On the Supreme Court, Democrat Anita Earls cruised to an easy election with 49.45 percent over two Republicans who split the vote. But what’s unique about the Supreme Court race is that more voters chose to support a Republican candidate than the Democratic candidate.
Heading into 2020, the Democrat Party’s concern should be over its last two statewide “top of ticket” winners failing to receive a mandate. This time, Anita Earls received just 49.5 percent of the vote. Remarkably, this total is higher than the 2016 top of ticket winner, Governor Roy Cooper, who received just 49.02 percent of the vote. The last time an elected governor in North Carolina failed to clear 50 percent was in 1896, when Representative Daniel L. Russell received 46.5 percent in a five-man race.


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