NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Surrounded by predictably red results from its rural neighbors, New Hanover County remains a purple battleground region, given current election results.
Name-dropped by CNN pundits and national publications this week as a bellwether county, New Hanover County lived up to its reputation as not swaying too heavily in favor of either political party this general election.
Like the state itself, New Hanover County chooses to elect a mix of political figures. Eyed as a flippable state this general election, North Carolinians may have opted to elect a Democratic governor and Republican president for the seventh time since 1980 this week — should current results hold after all outstanding absentee and provisional ballots are counted (this caveat applies to the entirety of this article).
During four out of the six last general elections, New Hanover County has done the same.
A… purple wave
As results stand, this week was the first time in at least 20 years and six general elections New Hanover County picked a Democratic presidential nominee, and the first time over the same timeframe it picked a Democrat for both president and governor (immediately available county data dates back to 2000; this figure is likely higher).
Though these are certainly noteworthy points, it isn’t necessarily indicative of a major blue wave. Democrats across the county (and state, and nation) are not in an exactly celebratory mood. “We’re a little bit disappointed but also in the wait-and-see mode,” Richard Poole, New Hanover County Democratic Party chair, said Wednesday.
“We really don’t know what’s still out there,” Poole said of uncounted ballots. “It could be a lot.” Since then, the state clarified how many outstanding ballots remain statewide. In New Hanover County, an absolute maximum possibility of 4,400 absentee by-mail and provisional ballots could still be assessed — the actual figure of ballots counted by Nov. 12 is certain to be lower.
On the heels of hosting primetime events in town with the Republican party’s biggest stars — the president himself, the vice president, Ivanka and Lara Trump — Poole’s GOP counterpart, Will Knecht, said he was still satisfied with New Hanover County’s results. The growing county delivered 62,420 votes for the president — higher than the local party’s 60,000-vote benchmark for this year and 7,076 more than in 2016.
But, the margin for former Vice President Joe Biden was higher, who earned 13,897 more votes in the county than Hillary Clinton. Turnout was up, but the increased turnout favored Biden locally. Biden leads President Donald Trump in New Hanover County by 2,456 votes (1.9%) and trails him by 76,701 votes (1.4%) in N.C.
“It’s going to bother me for the next four years, looking at the map of red and blue in the state of North Carolina and you see this little speck in southeastern North Carolina blue. Ugh. It’s going to burn me up,” Knecht joked. “But when you peel that back, we did deliver what we needed to deliver and I think that’s going to help secure the victory for the president in North Carolina.”
For Knecht, the challenge of winning each red seat is both rewarding and stimulating, he said. “Being purple, New Hanover County has a very unique impact on the state level. And I think we see that played out in this election process,” he said. “So in that respect, it’s fun, because we play an outsized influence in matters not only locally but on the state and federal level as well.”
Flippability brings attention
Downballot, New Hanover County split its two most important county-level races, with the county commission gaining two Republicans and one Democrat (matching its current makeup) and the school board welcoming two Democrats and one Republican (flipping a long-held Republican majority).
As for the Council of State (the state’s 10 executive offices which include the governor, attorney general, etc.), New Hanover County was split 5-5, while N.C. tilted slightly in favor of Republicans, 6-4.
Perhaps more burgundy in actuality, N.C. first earned its purple reputation 2008, when it sided with Barack Obama by a 0.2% margin — the state’s first Democratic presidential nominee in 32 years. Some analysts wonder whether this win was a fluke, but regardless, campaigns pour millions into the state each general election, betting their odds that N.C. could turn blue again.
Not including this cycle as results still aren’t final, the county predicts the actual presidential and N.C. gubernatorial outcome with 80% accuracy over this time frame (if results hold, the accuracy rate increases to 83%).
For some, New Hanover County’s split-ticket tendencies are a head-scratcher. How could the same person vote for a boisterous Trump and a stately Cooper?
Registered Republican Leonard Seals said he voted against Biden because he doesn’t like him and thinks the blame heaped on Trump for the pandemic isn’t fair. But he also voted against Dan Forest.
“Something about him, he just irks me,” Seals said of Forest. “I don’t know what it is. Just something about him. I don’t feel comfortable with him.”
Seals said he breaks party lines every now and then based on his perceived character read on a candidate.
Voters like Seals are getting harder to find, according to Dr. Aaron King, University of North Carolina at Wilmington coordinator for the undergraduate program in political science.
“Split-ticket voting is less common than it was in the past,” King said. “We know historically the south — and North Carolina included in that — that you would have people that are more liberal Republicans, more conservative Democrats, and in that case, as there’s sort of ideological diversity, that’s when you’ll see people more likely to split their ticket.”
For battleground states and regions like the county and state, split-ticket voting isn’t a rarity, he said. But, as the parties pull further apart, the phenomenon is shrinking.
“So it’s not uncommon in areas that are relatively equally divided. And yet there’s fewer and fewer of those areas,” he said. “As you become a little bit more polarized, that’s less likely as people perceive a bigger difference between the Republicans and the Democrats, they see less reason to hop over.”
Unaffiliated, undecided, moderate, or third party?
New Hanover County is home to a greater share of registered unaffiliated voters (38%) compared to the state (33%). After unaffiliated voters, registered Democrats and Republicans are neck-and-neck in the county — just 1.2% apart with Republicans leading — while the difference is greater statewide, with registered Democrats ahead by 5.3%.
The competition for these perceived undecided voters is fierce. Asked whether the party caters specifically to those in the middle, Knecht, the local GOP chair, said, “Yes. Without question. We invest a lot of time and a lot of money in appealing to those unaffiliated voters.”
Poole doubted that all local unaffiliated voters could truly go either way, but acknowledged how they vote can swing the region’s typically razor-thin local margins.
“One-third of the county consists of unaffiliated voters. I would not say most of them are moderate or in the middle,” he said. “But there are voters in there that can change their mind and can split tickets. I mean, we know this from experience. And it’s very important to appeal to those voters. I don’t have a lot of wisdom on how exactly to do that, but I think the candidates who succeed are the ones who do.”
Then, there are third-party voters. This much smaller percentage of voters can, theoretically, flip major races. In 2016, third-party voting peaked over the past two decades, taking up 5% (5,582 votes) of the presidential vote in the county and 4% in N.C (189,617 votes). This time around, third-party voting was less common, taking up 3.6% (2,251 votes) of the presidential vote in the county and 1.46% (79,361) in the state.
In each instance, the number of third-party voters could have flipped the election.
“You have to wonder, for some people, to the extent that they supported one of those candidates — did they end up getting their second choice?” King asked.
The same logic applies to ballot roll-off, the common practice of filling out high-interest bubbles toward the top of the ballot and leaving unfamiliar names and races toward the bottom blank.
In New Hanover County, 6,771 voters who showed up to vote in-person or whose vote has already been counted by mail elected not to fill in a bubble in the hotly contested District 9 race. If even one out of every four of these voters chose to fill in a bubble for this race, it could have theoretically swayed the outcome; Sen. Harper Peterson (D) and former Sen. Michael Lee (R) are currently separated by just 1,468 votes, with Lee ahead by a 1.2% margin.
“There are plenty of people that did not end up voting in lower ballet races, and if enough of them would have voted, they could have switched the outcome of the race,” King, the UNCW political science professor, said.
“And if you really sat down and you presented both things and you talked about the candidates, people would probably have an opinion on that. People are so focused on the top of the ticket — which is still important — but comparatively, your individual vote’s impact at the top of the ticket is quite a bit smaller than your individual vote lower on the ticket,” he said.
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at email@example.com