Why North Carolina is the state to watch this November

Why North Carolina is the state to watch this November

News story after news story highlights the states that supposedly will decide the next presidential election. Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania frequently lead the pack and have been beneficiaries of massive Democratic spending. But one very Purple state remains off most experts' lists, and it could decide which party controls Washington in 2021.

The fact is, for many decades North Carolina arguably has been home to the nation’s most evenly divided electorate. Start with presidential elections: Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Hill's Campaign Report: Coronavirus forces Democrats to postpone convention Biden associates reach out to Holder about VP search Poll: More Republican voters think party is more united than Democratic voters MORE won in The Tar Heel State in 2008 with only 49.7 percent of the vote. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTrump selects White House lawyer for coronavirus inspector general Overnight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill On The Money: Economy sheds 701K jobs in March | Why unemployment checks could take weeks | Confusion surrounds 9B in small-business loans MORE reclaimed it for the GOP four years later with only 50.4 percent. Then in 2016, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump fires intelligence community inspector general who flagged Ukraine whistleblower complaint Trump organization has laid off over 1000 employees due to pandemic: report Trump invokes Defense Production Act to prevent export of surgical masks, gloves MORE earned a mere 49.8 percent. 

So in the last three presidential contests, North Carolina’s winning candidate has averaged 49.97 percent — lower than any other state during this span. 

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Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisNorth Carolina Senate race emerges as 2020 bellwether The Hill's Campaign Report: North Carolina emerges as key battleground for Senate control Campaigns pivot toward health awareness as races sidelined by coronavirus MORE (R-N.C.) netted only 48.8 percent support in 2014. He’s up for re-election in 2020 in a state that hasn’t seen a Senate candidate surpass 56 percent of the vote since 1974. Every other state has had at least one candidate exceed 56 percent since 1998. How bizarre is that? It’s the mark of a state in which even legends like Jesse Helms and Terry Sanford had to claw their way to victories.

Tillis is one of four Republicans facing tough re-election prospects. If all four lose, Democrats would have a very good shot at taking back the Senate, particularly if they capture the White House (thereby seizing control in the event of a 50-50 split). Given North Carolina’s incredible track record for close elections, the Tillis race is arguably the most compelling to watch, as it could decide Senate control. 

In the House of Representatives, the GOP’s 10-3 seat advantage in North Carolina might give some the impression that the state leans comfortably Red. But effective gerrymandering has masked reality: North Carolina Republicans won only 50.4 percent of House votes in 2018, and have averaged only 51.9 percent in the four House election cycles since redrawing congressional maps after the 2010 census. 

Unfortunately for them, another court-ordered redrawing last year is expected to flip two seats from red to blue this November. This would narrow the Republican advantage to 8-5 in what remains a largely 50-50 state. In fact, the last time one party earned more than 56 percent of the House vote in North Carolina was in 1994. Only one other state (Michigan) has a longer streak of competitive aggregated results. 

Finally, perhaps the most fascinating gubernatorial matchup this year pits North Carolina incumbent Roy Cooper (D) against Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest (R). It has been 40 years since a North Carolina gubernatorial candidate has surpassed 56 percent of the vote (Jim Hunt in 1980). No other state has a streak longer than 30 years, and in most states, a candidate has eclipsed 56 percent within the past decade. 

Based on recent voter turnout, The Tar Heel State has been hands-down the most evenly divided state in America. This November, a few thousand North Carolinians could decide which party is running the country in January.

B.J. Rudell is associate director of Polis: Duke University’s Center for Politics, part of the Sanford School of Public Policy. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on a presidential campaign, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.